Saturday, January 24, 2009

Is curing your headache with acupuncture all in the mind?

Many swear it is as powerful as any headache pill – but the benefits of acupuncture could be all in the mind. Researchers have found a fake treatment is as good as the real thing at relieving the pain of headaches. An analysis of dozens of studies involving almost 7,000 men and women showed the ancient Chinese art to be better than tablets at warding off migraines.

However, fake treatments, in which the needles were placed randomly on the skin, were just as effective at stopping migraines – and almost as good at preventing tension headaches. The findings suggest many of the benefits of acupuncture are in the mind. Researchers say it is likely patients benefit from the 'placebo effect', in which care, attention and the simple belief the treatment will work, lead to improvements in health.

The analysis, published in the respected Cochrane Library's science review, is far from the first to cast doubts on the validity of the multi million-pound acupuncture industry. For instance, recent research has shown that acupuncture does nothing to boost a woman's chances of having a baby through IVF – and may even cut her odds of becoming a mother. However, other studies have proclaimed it to be effective.

In order to establish whether acupuncture helps prevent headaches, the German researchers combined the results of 33 clinical trials involving 6,736 patients. The men and women were treated for at least eight weeks in order to evaluate acupuncture's ability to ease tension headaches or the more severe but less frequent migraines. Some were treated with normal acupuncture, in which needles are inserted at specific 'energy points' in the skin. Others had a sham procedure, with the needles inserted at other points. The analysis showed the fake acupuncture to be just as good as the real thing at preventing migraines and almost as good at stopping tension headaches.

Researcher Dr Klaus Linde, from the Centre for Complementary Medicine Research at the Technical University of Munich, said: 'The studies suggest that migraine patients benefit from acupuncture, although the correct placement of needles seems to be less relevant than is usually thought by acupuncturists. 'Much of the clinical benefit of acupuncture might be due to nonspecific needling effects and powerful placebo effects, meaning the selection of specific needle points may be less important than many practitioners have traditionally argued.'

But, with the studies also showing acupuncture to be better than drugs at controlling migraines, the researchers said patients should have access to the treatment. Dr Linde said: 'Doctors need to know how long improvements associated with acupuncture will last and whether better-trained acupuncturists really achieve better results than those with basic training only.' Dr Mike Cummings, medical director off the British Medical Acupuncture Society, said: 'We certainly don't call what we do a "sham" procedure, as we believe there is growing evidence for a mechanism behind what we do. 'However, we still don't fully understand what is happening when needles are inserted, although these reviews suggest that for certain conditions, it is effective.'


$2-a-day anti-obesity pill is going on sale in Britain without prescription

A one pound-a-day pill that can help a woman rapidly drop a dress size could be sold over the counter within months. The drug, called alli, prevents the body from absorbing fat in food and helped slimmers lose an average of 10lb over six months in trials. It has been given the seal of approval by Europe's medicines watchdog and is expected to be available in pharmacies before the summer. Manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline last night described the licensing of the drug, the first of its kind to be available without prescription, as 'a significant milestone'.

In trials, slimmers who took a tablet with every meal typically lost 50 per cent more weight than those who relied on willpower. The 10lb average weight loss after six months is the equivalent of a dress size. But some dieters lost more than five stone.

However the pills do have side-effects. The undigested fat which can't be absorbed passes through the body rather than being stored, making slimmers prone to wind and diarrhoea. Alli can also interfere with the absorption of some vitamins and slimmers are advised to supplement their diet with a daily multi-vitamin pill. The drug, a half-strength version of the prescription-only diet pill Xenical, will be available to those with a body mass index of 28 and over. A BMI of 25 to 29.9 signals that someone is overweight, while those over 30 are classified as obese.

Sales of the drug, which is likely to be displayed behind chemists' counters, totalled œ400million in the U.S. in its first year. Its price is yet to be fixed, but in the U.S., where it has been on sale for over a year, it costs around œ1 a day. Glaxo has stressed that the pill, taken three times a day, is designed to enhance rather than replace the benefits of diet and exercise.

Dr David Haslam, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, said: 'Consumers are spending millions of pounds each year on fad diets, unproven "miracle pills" and potentially unsafe weight loss supplements. 'Medically proven licensed products give consumers the option of something which can genuinely support meaningful weight loss.'

Some, however, have questioned how well the drug will work away from trial conditions. Gareth Williams, editor of the book Obesity: Science to Practice, suggests that a healthier lifestyle would be just as effective. He said: 'Don't eat between meals, leave out food that's obviously full of fat or sugar and get half an hour's walking exercise a day. That's all you need to do.'


1 comment:

John A said...

All in the mind?

"An analysis of dozens of studies involving almost 7,000 men and women showed the ancient Chinese art to be better than tablets at warding off migraines."

Permit me to doubt...

I have noticed when viewing British TV dramas that "migraine" is used the way we use "headache" in the US, with no distinction made - at least in the public mind. I wonder if this study made any distinction?

My mother suffered migraine for decades. For at least two of those decades, she was told that it was "all in your mind" - i.e. psychological - and/or (as a teen) would disappear in a few years. Then she found a doctor who had migraine: he could not do much for her, but at least he recognised that the pain was real.

A niece suffers also. But she can recognise the oncoming symptoms before a full-blown attack, and new medicines allow her to lessen the pain to about the level of a normal headache - as long as she takes them before the actual pain begins: they have no effect during the agonising actuality.

So I believe in the efficaciousness of pharmacology. Perhaps acuuncture can serve in some way, but I am certainly not going to tell my niece she should have her husband trained in the art and throw away the pills...