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Acupuncture Pseudoscience in the New England Journal of Medicine

Here is the conclusion quoted from a recent New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) review article on acupuncture for back pain:

As noted above, the most recent wellpowered clinical trials of acupuncture for chronic low back pain showed that sham acupuncture was as effective as real acupuncture. The simplest explanation of such findings is that the specific therapeutic effects of acupuncture, if present, are small, whereas its clinically relevant benefits are mostly attributable to contextual and psychosocial factors, such as patients’ beliefs and expectations, attention from the acupuncturist, and highly focused, spatially directed attention on the part of the patient.

Translation – acupuncture does not work. Why, then, are the same authors in the same paper recommending that acupuncture be used for chronic low back pain? This is the insanity of the bizarro world of CAM (complementary and alternative medicine). Yesterday David covered the same article, which I had also covered on NeuroLogica, but we both thought this issue important enough to document our thoughts and objections on SBM.

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Credulity about acupuncture infiltrates the New England Journal of Medicine

One of the things that disturbs me the most about where medicine is going is the infiltration of quackery into academic medicine. So prevalent is this unfortunate phenomenon that Doctor RW even coined a truly apt term for it: Quackademic medicine. In essence, pseudoscientific and even prescientific ideas are rapidly being “integrated” with science-based medicine, or, as I tend to view it, quackery is being “integrated” with scientific medicine, to the gradual erosion of scientific standards in medicine. No quackery is too quacky, it seems. Even homeopathy and naturopathy can seemingly find their way into academic medical centers.

Probably the most common form of pseudoscience to wend its way into what should be bastions of scientific medicine is acupuncture. Harvard, Stanford, Yale, M. D. Anderson, and many others, they’ve all fallen under the sway of the idea that somehow sticking thin little needles into points that bear no relationship to any known anatomic structure and that supposedly “unblock” the flow of some sort of “life energy” that can’t be detected by any means that science has. Most recently, as I described, studies that seek to “prove that acupuncture works” have found their way into high quality, high impact journals whose editors should know better but apparently can’t recognize that the evidence in the study doesn’t actually show what the authors claim it shows. Even so, there are some journals that I didn’t expect to see this sort of infiltration of quackademic medicine. Granted, I never expected it to show itself in one of the Nature journals, as it did in the study I just mentioned. I also never expected it to show up in that flagship of clinical journals, a journal that is one of the highest impact and most read medical journals that exists. I’m talking the New England Journal of Medicine, and, unfortunately, I’m also talking an unfortunately credulous article from Dr. Brian M. Berman, who is the founder of the Center for Integrative Medicine, University of Maryland School of Medicine and the holder of multiple NCCAM center grants, and other institutions, entitled Acupuncture for Chronic Low Back Pain.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Medical Academia

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Another overhyped acupuncture study misinterpreted

acupinhead

Perhaps the most heavily studied of “alternative medicine” modalities is acupuncture. Although it’s hard to be sure as to the reason, I tend to speculate that part of the appeal to trying to do research in this area is because acupuncture is among the most popular of actual “alt-med” modalities, as opposed to science-based medical modalities co-opted by believers in alt-med and rebranded as “alternative” (diet and exercise, for instance, to which is all too often added the consumption of huge quantities of unproven nutritional supplments) or activities that make people feel better, whether they’re healthy or ill (massage, for instance). In contrast, acupuncture involves actually sticking needles into the skin. Never mind that the rationale for acupuncture, namely “redirecting” the flow of the “life energy” known as qi when it is blocked by sticking needles in “meridians” like some electrodes in some imaginary qi battery, is pure bunkum, as we’ve pointed out here at SBM time and time again. Somehow the image of needles sticking out of the skin, apparently painlessly and making some extreme acupuncture practices resemble Pinhead from the Hellraiser movie series, seems “sexy” as far as “alternative” therapies go, particularly since it’s “Eastern” as opposed to that reductionistically evil “Western medicine,” and, as we all know at SBM, “Western” is bad and “Eastern” is good.

So the fascination with acupuncture remains, so much so that an inordinate amount of research dollars are spent on studying it. Unfortunately, that money is largely wasted. As Steve Novella has pointed out, in general in medicine (at least these days), the trajectory of research is usually from bench research to animal models to small scale, less rigorous, pilot studies in humans to large scale, rigorously designed studies using many subjects. True, this order doesn’t always hold. For instance, if physicians make a compelling observation “at the bedside” of response to therapy or how a disease progresses, frequently, after making closer observations to confirm the initial observation, researchers will jump back to animal models and bench top research to try to figure out what’s going on. For such a progression to be useful, though, scientists have to be sure that the phenomenon in human patients under study actually exists.

Unfortunately, in acupuncture, the evidence is still unconvincing that there is any “there” there in that acupuncture effects appear to be no greater than placebo effects. As larger, more well designed studies using real placebo or sham acupuncture techniques, have increasingly shown that acupuncture does not function any better than placebo in human beings (and sometimes even worse), acupuncturists and acupuncture believers have been reversing the usual order of things, doing smaller studies and “pragmatic” (i.e., uncontrolled) clinical trials, where the placebo effect is not controlled for. Never mind that it doesn’t matter where the needles are placed (thus blowing the whole “meridian” idea out of the water) or even if the needles puncture the skin. Toothpicks work just as well as needles. Also never mind that the mythology of acupuncture as having been routinely practiced for over two thousand years (or, sometimes, four thousand years, is largely a creation of Chairman Mao, who elevated what was a marginal practice at the time to a modality that the state supported and promoted (1,2,3,4). Unfortunately, even the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) falls for this mythology.

Every so often, I’m amazed when an acupuncture study ends up in a high impact journal like Nature Neuroscience. Of course, when I read such articles, virtually inevitably I discover that what is being studied is not really “acupuncture” per se, but rather sticking needles into either people or animals. Sometimes, “electroacupuncture” (which is in reality not acupuncture at all, given that there was no source of electricity hundreds of years ago in China when acupuncture was supposedly invented) is misrepresented as acupuncture. Since a bunch of readers, both here and at my other blog, have deluged my mail box with this particular study, I felt obligated to have a look at it, even if Steve Novella has already weighed in with his excellent deconstruction. This particular study is especially annoying, because it’s been hyped to the nth degree, and even some news sources where the reporters should know better have fallen for it.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Science and the Media

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Potential New Mechanism of Pain Relief Discovered

The development of drugs and other treatments for specific symptoms or conditions relies heavily on either serendipity (the chance finding of a beneficial effect) or on an understanding of underlying mechanisms. In pain, for example, there are limited ways in which we can block pain signals – such as activating opiate receptors or inhibiting prostaglandins. There are only so many ways in which you can interact with these systems. The discovery of a novel mechanism of modulating pain is therefore most welcome, and has the potential of leading to entirely new treatments that may have better side-effect profiles than existing treatments and also have additive clinical effects.

A recent study by Nana Goldman et. al., published in Nature Neuroscience, adds to our understanding of pain relief by identifying the role of adenosine in reducing pain activity in the peripheral nervous system. The researchers, in a nice series of experiments, demonstrated that producing a local painful stimulus in mice causes the local release of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) that peaks at about 30 minutes. This correlates with a decreased pain response in the mice. Further, if drugs are given that prolong the effect of adenosine, the analgesic effect itself is prolonged.

Also, if drugs are given that activate the adenosine A1 receptor, the observed analgesic effect is replicated. When these experiments are replicated in knockout mice that do not have the gene for the adenosine A1 receptor, there is no observed analgesic effect.

Together these experiments are fairly solid evidence that local pain results in the local release of adenosine that in turn binds to the adenosine A1 receptor inhibiting the pain response. This is potentially very exciting – it should lead to further investigation of the adenosine A1 receptor and the effects of activating and inhibiting it. This may lead to the development of drugs or other interventions that activate these receptors and may ultimately be a very useful addition to our ability to treat acute and chronic pain.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Acupuncture for Depression

One of the basic principles of science-based medicine is that a single study rarely tells us much about any complex topic. Reliable conclusions are derived from an assessment of basic science (i.e prior probability or plausibility) and a pattern of effects across multiple clinical trials. However the mainstream media generally report each study as if it is a breakthrough or the definitive answer to the question at hand. If the many e-mails I receive asking me about such studies are representative, the general public takes a similar approach, perhaps due in part to the media coverage.

I generally do not plan to report on each study that comes out as that would be an endless and ultimately pointless exercise. But occasionally focusing on a specific study is educational, especially if that study is garnering a significant amount of media attention. And so I turn my attention this week to a recent study looking at acupuncture in major depression during pregnancy. The study concludes:

The short acupuncture protocol demonstrated symptom reduction and a response rate comparable to those observed in standard depression treatments of similar length and could be a viable treatment option for depression during pregnancy.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Obstetrics & gynecology

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Acupuncture for Chronic Prostatitis/Chronic Pelvic Pain Syndrome

Chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome (CP/CPPS) is a somewhat nebulous diagnosis with unknown etiology and no effective treatment. To make the diagnosis, bacterial infection must be excluded and the symptoms must last at least 3 months. Symptoms include pain in various locations (between rectum and testicle, in the testicles, at the tip of the penis, in the lower back, in the abdomen over the pubic or bladder area), pain or burning with urination, frequent urination, pain or discomfort during or after sexual climax. There are also systemic features like decreased libido, myalgias, and fatigue, and there is a higher incidence of chronic fatigue syndrome in these patients. The connection to the prostate is uncertain; in one study, women with chronic pelvic pain reported more of these symptoms than men did. Diagnosis is based on self-reported symptoms; there are no objective diagnostic markers. Somewhere between 2 and 10% of the male population are reported to suffer from this syndrome.

Since there is no effective mainstream treatment for this disorder, why not try acupuncture? Two randomized, placebo-controlled studies have reported positive results from acupuncture treatment. Is this enough evidence for us to recommend it to patients? (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture

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AFP Promotes Acupuncture

I subscribe to American Family Physician, the peer-reviewed journal of the American Academy of Family Physicians. It emphasizes evidence-based medicine and most articles include a table showing strength of evidence ratings for key recommendations for practice. Lately, its scientific rigor has been slipping. I have complained to the editor about several articles whose recommendations were not based on the best science, and I have been consistently ignored. 

Acupuncture for Chronic Low Back Pain 

A recent article on chronic low back pain recommended acupuncture and gave it an “A” rating corresponding to “consistent, good-quality patient-oriented evidence.” I wrote the following letter to the editor and to the author of the article:  (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture

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The Golden State of Pseudo-Science

The state of California (CA) which is home to the most advanced education and research in biomedical sciences, computational biology, genomics and proteomics, etc, is also home to 19 institutions that have state-approved training programs in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a pseudo-medicine that is based on ideas and practices sourced by ancient cosmology, mythology, astrology, and a range of other pre-scientific beliefs that have been partially “sanitized” during the Maoist era.

Emerging out of the recent hype about complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), the educational curricula of these institutions include the study of acupuncture’s point-and-meridian system, the health and safety beliefs of ancient and medieval China, humoral pathology, herbalism, Asian massage, and a limited amount of modern biomedical sciences at a level below what is required from vocational nurses. These curricula are supposed to provide the necessary knowledge and skills for the graduates to pass a comprehensive state licensing exam and provide “primary” healthcare in CA. However, pursuant to CA Code of Regulations, Title 16, Section 1399.451(b) it is improper for these “primary” healthcare providers, “to disseminate any advertising which represents in any manner that they can cure any type of disease, condition or symptom!” Nonetheless, both the internet and the local press abound with ads by CA licensed practitioners who claim that acupuncture can cure or mitigate many diseases, ranging from allergies and infertility to stroke and paralysis.

Under the banner of CAM, a handful of these practitioners also advertise that they can communicate with spirits and heal with crystals, colors or sounds; they practice healing touch (reiki) and distance healing (via PayPal!); provide spiritual counseling and ministerial services, and make implausible medical claims such as healing a chronic condition with just one needle!

All 19 programs are approved by the CA Department Affairs’ (DCA) Board of Acupuncture, since CA law requires that the content of an acupuncture training program be assessed and approved by the State.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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Oriental Medicine or Medical Orientalism?

The following is the second adapted excerpt of an upcoming article called “The Untold Story of Acupuncture.” It is scheduled to be published in December 2009 in Focus in Alternative and Complementary Therapies (FACT), a review journal that presents the evidence on alternative medicine in an analytical and impartial manner. This section argues that the current flurry of interest in acupuncture and Oriental Medicine stems predominantly out of postmodern opposition to Enlightenment rationalism, and bears witness to Orientalism and consumerism in contemporary medicine.

In five years, from 1971 to 1975, l directly experienced Est [Erhard Seminars Training], gestalt therapy, bioenergetics, rolfing, massage, jogging, health foods, tai chi, Esalen, hypnotism, modern dance, meditation, Silva Mind Control, Arica, acupuncture, sex therapy, Reichian therapy and More House — a smorgasbord course in New Consciousness.1

 Jerry Rubin (1938 – 1994)

Although acupuncture has been known in the US since the 19th Century, its therapeutic claims were dismissed or judged to be “much overrated” by the medical community.2,3 Nonetheless, the publication of a report in the New York Times by James Reston, a reporter in President Nixon’s press corps who had received acupuncture for postoperative cramps in Beijing in 1971 changed this perception, and triggered a flurry of interest amongst the American public and some in the medical community.4 Within the following months, journalists, scientists and physicians rushed to China to withness this peculiar phenomenon, which the popular press and a few scientific journals sensationalized by reporting that thousands of successful operations of all sorts were being carried out in PRC using acupuncture anesthesia; some elaborated on its widespread use for a myriad of conditions, to include paralysis and deafness!5

These unconfirmed claims in the heady social and intellectual climate of the 1970s–meaning the American Counterculture; the rejection of mainstream values, beliefs and ideals; the youth movement, nonconformism and the hippie subculture, the belief in a “New” and  “Cosmic” consciousness and the cult phenomenon; revolutionary ideas mixed with environmentalism; organic farming and the avoidance of pollution, agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals; nonconformism and alternative lifestyles; a syncretistic mix of psychedelic drugs, Eastern religions and Native American spiritualities; the resurgence of the taste for mystic, occult, and magical phenomena;6,7 and the belief in the existence of a separate and non-ordinary reality, as upheld by one of the fathers of the New Age movement, Carlos Castaneda8–gave the justification to view acupuncture as a “heal all” therapy based on alternate perceptions of health and disease.  This amalgamation happened precisely when a whole generation of disenchanted Westerners were eager to find novel solutions for their existential predicaments; one that would be free from the constraints of the so-called “repressive rationality” of modern science in “overdeveloped” societies.9,10. Most Western publications on acupuncture therefore fostered the belief that Eastern healing arts have crucial characteristics directly and unequivocally opposite to the repressive rationalism of the West.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, History, Science and Medicine

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James Reston’s Tooth of Gold

One of the fathers of critical thinking and skeptical inquiry, the French philosopher Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657–1757) recounts in 1687 in his Histoire des oracles–a debunking book on popular beliefs, myths and superstitions that caused tremendous stir in theological and philosophical circles of his time–a colorful story that could very well illustrate the flurry of interest and research in acupuncture that followed a 1971 anecdotal account of its use in China, and the plethora of verbiage and publications that ensued. If the story of the Tooth of Gold is comical, colorful and amusing, its applicability to acupuncture is not.

In 1593, the rumor ran that a seven year old in Silesia grew a tooth of gold in place of one of the cheek tooth he lost. Horatius, professor of medicine at the University of Helmstad, wrote a history of this tooth in 1595 and alleged that it was partially natural, partially miraculous, and that it was sent by God to this child to console the Christians that were oppressed by the Turks. Just imagine what consolation and what concern this tooth might bring to the Christians or to the Turks. For this tooth not to lack historians, Rullandus rewrote its history in the same year. Two years later, Ingolsteterus, another learned man, wrote against the views of Rullandus on the tooth of gold; to which Rullandus immediately wrote a fine and wise reply. Another great man named Libavius gathered all that had been written on this tooth and added his own views. Nothing lacked to these many fine books, other than the tooth were truly of gold. When the goldsmith examined it, he found that it was made of a leaf of gold skillfully applied to the tooth; but they began by writing books and then they consulted the goldsmith.1

Translated from French by the author

Besides the glut of popular publications on Chinese acupuncture and medicine by wishful authors without any training in biomedical sciences and healthcare, the NIH, the NCCAM, and some of our most prodigious medical universities also have official and academic publications on the subject that too well resemble the fine and wise publications of Horatius and his contemporaries. They also began by writing books and articles on the theories that could explain the purported indications of acupuncture, and then they assessed the veracity these indications in clinical trials and according to the principles of evidence-based medicine.
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