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More “bait and switch” acupuncture studies

Acupuncture has been a frequent topic on this blog because, of all the “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) modalities out there, it’s arguably the one that most people accept as potentially having some validity. The rationale behind acupuncture is, as we have explained many times before, little different than the rationale behind any “energy healing” method (like reiki, for example) in that it claims to redirect the flow of “life energy” (the ever-invoked qi). The only difference is that acupuncturists claim to bring this therapeutic qi rearrangement about by sticking thin needles into the pathways in the body through which this qi is fantasized to flow. These pathways, called meridians, are just as much a fantasy as qi itself or the “universal source” that reiki masters claim to be able to channel through themselves and into believers. Contributing to the popularity of acupuncture is its mythology as having been routinely practiced for over two thousand years, a myth that was the 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).

In addition, because acupuncture involves sticking actual metal objects into the skin rather than simply laying on hands or making magical gestures over the patient, it retains some credibility, even among doctors. It doesn’t matter that, reviewing the totality of the research, one finds that it doesn’t matter where you stick the needles or even if you stick the needles in the skin. The results are the same and indistinguishable from placebo. The inescapable conclusion is that acupuncture is placebo medicine with needles. Personally, I’d prefer my placebo medicine without needles, but that’s just me.

Yet, the studies keep rolling in, trying desperately to demonstrate that acupuncture works or assuming that acupuncture works . Two more popped up within the last couple of weeks, and one of them, if you read the press releases, sounds really convincing. As is frequently the case, for this latter study, there is less to it than meets the eye. I’ll start, however, with a study that is a followup to a study I blogged about a couple of years ago that I characterized as another overhyped acupuncture study misinterpreted. This one, thankfully, is not nearly as hyped as the study from two years ago—or as the second study I will discussed, but it is very instructive how the original misinterpreted story is leading to a classic CAM “bait and switch” applied to acupuncture.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Energy Medicine, Science and the Media

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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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