Acupuncture boosts chances of your study getting international publicity

February 8, 2008 at 11:25 am by in science

BBC News reports Acupuncture ‘boosts IVF chances’ others such as the Chicago Tribune are a bit more sober, yet still misleading, using the headline Acupuncture might help with fertility.

To be true to the meta-analysis study, the headline should really read:

Acupuncture might help one out of ten women get pregnant via IVF treatment at Chinese clinics that have relatively low rates of success; patients in European clinics with high rates of success will get no benefit.

Let me break this down into easy to read bullet points:

  • This is not a new study just a meta-analysis of seven previously published studies
  • These studies used different methodologies and we don’t know what the selection criteria was or what bias there might have been
  • The studies at European clinics showed no effect
  • The only studies that showed any effect were Chinese IVF clinic studies
  • Since the only positive research came from Chinese research this calls the entire meta-analysis into doubt
  • Unless — acupuncture only works in China — Ha!

For a more in depth breakdown on this recent study, read Peter Sanderson’s blog post Misleading acupuncture / IVF headlines.

In another study back in september, acupuncture was shown to have no effect beyond the placebo effect. Again the media distorted this acupuncture study. Others have already done an excellent job dissecting the acupuncture back pain studies here and here.

The only real conclusion to make from all of this is that acupuncture has one solidly empirical benefit: with enough positive manipulation any researcher can get international headlines.

Tags: , , ,


  1. I thought I’d read somewhere (SciAm?) within the last few years that a study had found that while there was no difference between traditional acupuncture and “fake acupuncture” (where patients are stuck with needles but in the “wrong” places), there was a real difference for some conditions between fake acupuncture and an expected placebo effect. Must try to find that.

    Heather tried acupuncture a few years ago, despite my pointedly raised eyebrow, for her repetitive stress problem and we were both surprised to find that the swelling in her arm reduced immediately and significantly, which hadn’t happened after other treatments (though hot/cold baths did have some effect). This happened every time she went. The fact that she hadn’t expected it to work and that other treatments had had less of an effect suggests to me that there’s something more than just a placebo effect (though if it worked the first time the placebo effect would be more likely on subsequent attempts).

    Of course this is just an anecdote, and I really need to dig up that study.

  2. @Erik The acupuncture study your talking about is the same one I mentioned at the end of my post. The two links there talk about the study.

    Personally, I don’t think that the needles are doing anything. However, I do think that the placebo effect is quite strong with acupuncture for some reason. Probably has to do with the personal touch, for the same reason that massage is great or that people continue to go to chiropractic care even though it’s a sham too.

  3. After reading those two posts you link to at the end, I think the one thing I can say for sure is that more and better studies are needed: people who have been unresponsive to conventional treatment for years aren’t the best candidates for such a study. I’m still not quite convinced that the effects of fake acupuncture are just placebo – the difference in results in the study is still suggestive, though I’d like to know more about why people in the conventional treatment group were moved to the nonresponder category.

    One thing I’d like to see such a study address is whether people expect the therapy they’re getting to work, and how that correlates to the results. It would also be good to compare fake acupuncture with some sort of made-up touch therapy, where the trappings are the same, only the patient gets gentle pressure rather than a needle. I like the idea suggested in one of using retractable needles so not even the acupuncturist knows whether the person is getting a needle or not.

    Of course at some point we may just want to give in and start using the placebo effect as a therapy in itself. We’d have to figure out how to make placebo results as strong as possible – do you have to believe in the theoretical underpinnings for it to work? Does touch make for better results? Does the therapy have to be new to the patient? If the patient knows that the therapy is based on the placebo effect will it still work? What if they believe that it will?

  4. Ideally you want to have a therapy that actually works not just as a placebo but really works. Plus on top deliver it in such a way as to really convince the patient that it will work and thus have a positive placebo effect on top.

    Yeah see the problem with placebo only treatment, as strong as they may be, is that once they stop working of can become a neutral or even negative effect. Then the patient goes on in search of another alternative treatment. This is one of the reasons that people jump from herb to herb or acupuncture to reiki. It seems to work great then stops.