Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

Another acupuncture study misinterpreted

Posted in Respectful Insolence by Skepdude on May 13, 2009

I was going to handle this myself, but then I found out Orac handled this already, and who can beat Orac when it comes to this sort of stuff, right?

I have to hand it to acupuncture mavens. They are persistent. Despite numerous studies failing to find any evidence that acupuncture is anything more than an elaborate placebo whose effects, such as they are, derive from nonspecifice mechanisms having nothing to do with meridians, qi, or “unblocking” qi. Moreover, consistent with the contention that acupuncture is no more than an elaborate placebo, various forms of “sham” acupuncture (needles that appear to insert but don’t or acupuncture in the “wrong” locations, for example) produce results indistinguishable from “real” acupuncture.

That record won’t change with the latest acupuncture study for low back pain that was published on Monday and is making the rounds through the media. Let’s start with a news report on Medpage Today:

WHEELING, W.Va., May 11 — Acupuncture was more effective than conventional treatment for relieving lower back pain in a randomized trial, but performed no better than poking patients gently with toothpicks.The editors of Medpage Today should really know better than to publish nonsense like this. They shouldn’t have allowed a story about this particular study to start out by saying that acupuncture was bound to be “more effective” than conventional treatment because this study showed nothing of the sort, for reasons that I’ll discuss later. Actually, I bet that astute regular readers here will be able to identify immediately exactly why such a conclusion is unjustified when I describe how the study was done. If not, I promise I’ll make it painfully clear to you by the end. I’ll also feel like I’m repeating myself because I’ve mentioned this very same defect in acupuncture studies. In any case, the study did show that “real” acupuncture was no better than sham acupuncture.

Back to the study. It appeared in Archives of Internal Medicine and was published by a team of investigators led by Dr. Daniel Cherkin of the Center for Health Studies in Seattle; investigators from Northern California Kaiser Permanente, Cancer Research and Biostatistics in Seattle; Department of Family Medicine, Oregon Health and Science University; and (of course) the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Yes. NCCAM had a hand in this study. Is anyone surprised? In any case, the study was entitled A Randomized Trial Comparing Acupuncture, Simulated Acupuncture, and Usual Care for Chronic Low Back Pain (Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(9):858-866).


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