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In their recent report in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Ee et al1 state that Chinese medical acupuncture was no better than non-insertive sham acupuncture for women with moderately severe menopausal hot flashes in a randomised controlled trial. The authors conclude that they “cannot recommend skin-penetrating acupuncture as an efficacious treatment of this indication”.1 In my opinion, the authors might have misinterpreted the results.
The ‘sham acupuncture’ used in this clinical trial was the Park sham device, which is supposed to serve as a placebo treatment. It uses a 0.35×40 mm blunt needle supported by a plastic ring and guide tube (base unit) attached to the skin with a double-sided adhesive ring. The needle telescopes into itself and shortens on manipulation, giving the visual and physical impression of insertion into the skin.1 Although the blunt needle does not insert into the skin, it does cause considerable pressure and thereby mechanical stimulation, especially given the small diameter at its tip. This Park sham device should arguably be relabelled as an acupressure device, instead of a form of sham acupuncture treatment. Indeed, this type of device and needling method is historically recognised as an active form of treatment; it is otherwise known as a Di needle (鍉针 or Di Zhen, a style of pressing needle that does not penetrate the skin), as documented in The Spiritual Pivot: Nine Needles and Twelve Source Points (Ling Shu: Jiu Zhen Shi Er Yuan) in the second part of the Yellow Emperor's Inner Classics, which was published 2000 years ago.2 For this reason, the trial design contained an obvious weakness; it compared acupuncture with acupressure, rather than acupuncture with truly inert sham acupuncture.
According to the trial's results, hot flash scores decreased after both interventions by about 40% between baseline and the end of treatment (10 sessions, ending after 8 weeks) and these effects were sustained for 6 months. Statistically, there is no evidence that acupuncture was better than acupressure (called ‘sham acupuncture’ in the paper) in its impact on quality of life, anxiety or depression.1 This can equally be interpreted as evidence that both acupuncture and acupressure effectively decrease hot flashes and related symptoms, as well as quality of life, if we compare the results immediately after treatment (8 weeks) and at the 3- and 6-month follow-up, with baseline in the same group (self-control) or comparator group (as a waiting list-like control).
As regards the placebo effect, evidence from the literature3 and a review of multiple trials4 shows that patients receiving placebo interventions exhibit an average decrease of 21–25% in hot flash frequency and intensity. Therefore, a 40% decrease in hot flash symptom scores with either acupuncture or acupressure treatment is notably higher than that expected with a placebo and likely to be clinically significant. Further research with a more appropriate control group is needed. Meanwhile, however, if a patient declines or cannot tolerate conventional drug treatment, then it would not be unreasonable to offer either acupuncture or acupressure as an alternative treatment for this condition.
Competing interests None declared.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.