Acupuncture worth a shot for COPD?

People suffering from COPD may find some relief with acupuncture treatments, according to researchers from Kyoto University and Meiji University. The study was a small, preliminary clinical trial. And although the results seem promising, researchers need to overcome the single-blinded limitation before people start making any definite conclusions. The study is important, as there is no cure for COPD, but only therapies to relieve its symptoms or to prevent the condition from worsening. After reading this WebMD article, however, readers may come away with the feeling that acupuncture is the greatest thing since penicillin.

I was first reviewer for this HNR review.

The story fell short on many levels – most importantly, on breaking down the research and its significance for readers. This was a small clinical study with limitations.

Our Review Summary

The story includes several independent experts for comment, but the article fails to put the study into perspective. With language like, “Clearly… a viable alternative,” readers leave with the wrong impression regarding the significance of the research. The story would have done better to include facts, such as :

  • small, single-blinded clinical trial
  • study participants only followed for three months
  • some quantification of  study data (ie. How were improvements measured to merit the claims made by researchers?)

Why This Matters

Many patients with COPD, a condition often due to long-term use of cigarettes, have shortness of breath with activity resulting in impaired quality of life. Though there are a number of medications that have been available to treat COPD for years, patients often still have symptoms that affect their daily function. Thus, safe and effective new treatments for COPD would be welcome. For the reader of this article, that new treatment would appear to be acupuncture. But there is good reason to believe this is more based on hype and hope than reality and evidence. This is a small study from Japan and even if true, COPD is a heterogeneous disease, meaning that it is crucial to repeat in other settings and patients before declaring it effective. It is also important to know whether this helps a bit or a lot – it isn’t clear from reading this article. Just because acupuncture is safe and may work doesn’t mean it should be embraced. The experts quoted in this piece have lowered the bar with their supportive words. The article needs someone to say the obvious – this may offer hope but let’s wait for larger, more definitive studies. The net result is that the reader is misled. [HealthNewsReview.org]

You can see the full reviews on my site at Journalism -> Review and also at HealthNewsReview.org.