My friend Brian sent me this article from MSNBC’s website about a recent study that seems to indicate that acupuncture was more effective than drug treatments for hot flashes. Of course my first instinct was to be very skeptical. Acupuncturists have made lots of medical claims over the years and cited many studies that allegedly supported their case that have all turned out highly unreliable. But for every study that allegedly supported acupuncture, there has been tons of better controlled studies that have proven acupuncture totally useless for anything other than wallet weight loss. There was even a very recent study where test subjects in the “sham acupuncture” (although it sounds like a redundant phrase this just means acupuncture where the needles were placed at random points rather than the specific locations acupuncturists claim the needles must go) showed the greatest improvement over “real” acupuncture. And just a few weeks ago Steve Novella reviewed the literature on acupuncture on his blog.
It wasn’t long before ABC television news covered the story both at 6pm and again with Charlie Gibson at 6:30. I imagine the story’s probably being covered by all the major news outlets as well. Now while I haven’t gotten all the information yet I’ve already found one rather crucial piece of information that some of the news outlets have not mentioned. The study only involved a sample size of 47 women. That’s only a few thousand less than what one would expect to see in a reasonable study. And if the sample size was only 47 women, it really makes you wonder how large the control group was or if they even had a control group at all. Sure, if a bunch of women in the study showed greater improvement with acupuncture, it raises some questions. And we absolutely should investigate further. After all unlike, say, homeopathy, at least is an actual physiological change that is happening with acupuncture in that there are actual small needles penetrating the skin and interacting with the body. So it’s not out of the question that acupuncture could have some unexpected benefit. It’s just highly unlikely.
But the bottom like at least for now is it’s kinda absurd for the acupuncturists to be tooting their own horn over a lousy 47-subject study. And I think it’s bad judgment on the media to have sensationalized such a tiny study. And seems like obvious other conclusions were ignored (at least by the media). One such example is that the study showed that acupuncture did better the drug doctors had been prescribing, Effexor. My first thought was that maybe the drug simply doesn’t do what it’s supposed to. If that was the case it wouldn’t be so impressive for acupuncture to have shown better results. And did they use sham acupuncture for a control group for this study? Too many questions are still left unanswered.
Now I expect some of the more knowledgeable science bloggers whose blogs I frequent to be talking all about this study tomorrow and so I’ll probably be a lot more informed then. So my plan is to provide an update on this blog entry tomorrow where I’ll attach links to more informed blogs about this study.
But until then, I remain horribly unimpressed with this 47-subject study.