What a contortion the Daily Mail had to perform in this news article ‘Research says it does work. So what IS the truth about acupuncture’ from September last year. (See full account of the research on my permanent pages) After the release of the largest, most definitive research project on the value of acupuncture for the relief of pain, the paper acknowledged that the report, the largest analysis of acupuncture ever conducted, found that traditional acupuncture worked better than a placebo.
It involved nearly 18,000 patients and doctors from eight universities and hospitals in the UK, the U.S. and Germany. In conditions such as arthritis and chronic headache, acupuncture was twice as effective as the drugs and exercise recommended by most doctors, according to the analysis published in the authoritative Archives of Internal Medicine.
The Daily Mail, bastion of sharp journalism asks: ‘So what makes this latest piece of research any more authoritative than the thousands of previous studies?
To begin with, its size. Researchers analysed the results from 29 high quality trials involving 17,922 patients.
All the patients had different sorts of chronic pain — arthritic, back and neck, headaches and shoulder pain — and were already being treated for it by their doctors; the acupuncture was an added treatment.
‘At the start, an average patient would reported a pain level of 60/100, that’s pretty bad,’ says lead author on the paper, Dr Andrew Vickers, an expert in biostatistics and research methods at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
‘It’s known that just being in a trial makes people feel better so, as expected, the average pain rating went down to 43.
‘Getting sham acupuncture lowered the rating further to 35. But patients who got traditional acupuncture with all the needles carefully inserted into the correct point on a meridian over several weeks rated their pain at 30.
‘That means they felt it was half as bad as it had been with standard treatment.’
You don’t have to be an expert in statistics to see that the difference between sham and traditional isn’t that big.
But partly because the number of patients is so large it’s unlikely to have happened by chance. Statisticians call such a result ‘significant’.
‘The difference between traditional and sham acupuncture in this study is greater than the difference between painkilling aspirin-like drugs and a sham pill or placebo,’ says Professor George Lewith, head of the complementary medicine research unit at the University of Southampton and another author on the paper.