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The Daily Telegraph recently published two reports about acupuncture. One said it worked. The other said it didn’t work. Needle cure effect ‘is not all in the mind’ By Catriona Davies, starts

Acupuncture has a genuine ability to relieve pain, scientists have found.

The other report was

Doubt cast on needle therapy for migraine By Nic Fleming, Health Correspondent, starts

Acupuncture is no better at reducing migraines than fake treatment, researchers say today.

A study involving more than 300 patients found the healing method did reduce headaches, but only by the same amount as placing needles at non-acupuncture points.

Unfortunately the Daily Telegraph‘s reporters did nothing to help the confused reader. No comment was made on the apparent contradiction. In this particular case, there is an obvious explanation.

The first (favourable) article was said to be published in Nature, though in fact it was published in Neuroimage (Pariente J., White P., Frackowiak , Richard S. J. & Lewith G. Neuroimage, 25. 1161 – 1167, 2005). Presumably the reporter had picked it up from a rather uncritical synopsis on the news site, nature.com. It was conducted on 14 patients with painful osteoarthritis. Contrary to the first line of the Telegraph‘s report (“Acupuncture has a genuine ability to relieve pain”), the work did not measure pain at all. In fact the summary of the paper says

“The three interventions, all of which were sub-optimal acupuncture treatment, did not modify the patient’s pain.”

What the paper actually did was to use positron emission tomography (PET) to measure ‘activation’ of certain parts of the brain when needles were inserted. Some parts were activated more by having acupuncture needles piercing ths body than by ‘stage-dagger’ needles which retracted and did not pierce the body. I have no criticism of these findings: my purpose here is to explore the apparent contradiction between this trial and another.

The second, unfavourable, report was of a much bigger study, 302 patients with migraine headaches. It was published by Linde et al. (Journal of the American Medical Association. 2005 293(17):2118-25). This study concluded

“Acupuncture was no more effective than sham acupuncture in reducing migraine headaches although both interventions were more effective than a waiting list control. ”

These two studies were on quite different conditions, used different methods, and very different numbers of patients. But suppose we take them at face value, are they not contradictory? No, not necessarily, because they used quite different sorts of control group.

The study that was reported as showing that acupuncture worked compared patients that had real acupuncture with patients who had treatment with “stage dagger” needles that appeared to pierce the skin but did not.

The study that was reported as showing that acupuncture did not work (Linde et al.) used a different sort of control group, acupuncture needles that pierced the skin but were inserted in the wrong places (as defined by the ‘principles’ of acupuncturists). No difference was found between ‘real acupuncture’ and control.

There is nothing incompatible about these two studies if one adopts the view that piercing the skin with a needle can produce a physiological response that makes the patient feel that other sorts of pain are less painful, but that it does not matter where the skin is pierced. The latter hypothesis means, of course, that all talk about “meridians”` and “energy flow” that acupuncturists use, is no more than mumbo jumbo.

Dr Lewith is quoted as saying, of the negative study, “This is a badly conceived study that just adds more confusion to the debate because it uses non-site specific acupuncture as a control.” Quite on the contrary, the Linde study seems more interesting to me, because it unveils the mumbo jumbo of meridians (at least for the particular points used in this study). Dr Lewith may find this conclusion unpalatable, but it is the obvious implication of this pair of studies.

Another study confirms that the principles of acupuncture are nonsense

A trial by Melchart and colleagues on 270 patients shows conclusively that acupuncture can indeed produce amelioration of tension-type headache when compared with no treatment, BUT the relief is produced whether or not needles are inserted at ‘acupuncture points’. Very similar results were found with ‘superficial needling at non-acupuncture points’. British Medical Journal, 15 August 2005. Yet again it is shown that the mumbo-jumbo of meridians and magic points is nonsense. Yet again, that is a good reason why universities cannot be expected to train acupuncturists. Our business is to minimise mumbo-jumbo, not to propagate it.

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