Saturday, November 15, 2008

Is acupuncture harmful?

There's a curious story we've written which may appear on this site quite soon. It is about acupuncture and reports a Chinese study of the impact of acupuncture on fertility treatment.

The researchers in Hong Kong set out to be scientific in their research and used standard medical research techniques. And that causes the problem.

The research compared fake acupuncture with real acupuncture. In fake acupuncture, treatment is given with fake needles which retract when pressed against the skin. This was meant to be the same as the use of a placebo in drugs trial. A placebo is a dummy pill meant to make the patient think they might be receiving treatment. So the psychological impact of receiving treatment is taken into account.

So if a drug works, patients taking the real drug fare better than those taking the placebo. If a drug is harmful, patients fare worse on the real thing. And if a drug is totally ineffective, both placebo and drug are about the same.

What Dr Ernest Ng and his colleagues concluded was that women who received fake acupuncture were more likely to get pregnant than those receiving the real thing. The women were received IVF treatment and 55 per cent of those in the first group were successful - compared with 45 per cent of those getting fake acupuncture.

What can be concluded from this? Almost certainly that acupuncture for fertility treatment does not work. But does fake acupuncture work? And is real acupuncture actually harmful, as you might conclude?

And how on earth do you write the story?

It would be a great deal easier if acupuncture had been compared with nothing. You could then conclude that acupuncture wasm harmful. But it is also possible that fake treatment is beneficial. It involved applying gentle pressure to acupuncture points - and maybe that is better than inserting a needle when a woman is trying to get pregnant.

It's been said that journalism is the first draft of history. Our story reads:
Pretend acupuncture may help boost fertility - and is better than the real thing, according to new findings.
That was not our first draft and it is just about tenable. The researchers certainly believed that the placebo effect was genuine - that fake treatment had helped to stimulate the women in some way.

It's also possible that real acupuncture was harmful to these women.

And it is even possible the whole thing is a statistical freak. The research involved just 370 women - and that is not a great deal when you are seeking a statistically robust result.

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