I normally avoid the health section of major media outlets. Half the time it’s sensationalist medical nonsense, the other half its woo-filled nonsense. But, I found myself browsing the health section in the NY Times today and I found two articles that caught my interest (prepare for science reporting rant).
The first is called Tai Chi Reported to Ease Fibromyalgia. It seems to be part science and part new age nonsense (or is that non-science?). First of all, the title of the article makes it seem like this is confirmed. It is not. This is, at best, a small preliminary study on the subject, and the study itself is aware of that. This is what the study concludes:
Tai chi may be a useful treatment for fibromyalgia and merits long-term study in larger study populations.
The study doesn’t mention any supernatural aspect of Tai chi either, but that doesn’t stop the NY Times from doing so, with mentions of Ying and Yang and the spiritual aspect of it. I would be interested to see follow up studies, including ones that compare Tai chi to other forms of light exercise, like light stretching. This article isn’t bad though, compared to the next one.
Fake acupuncture appears to work just as well for pain relief as the real thing, according to a new study of patients with knee arthritis.
If you know anything about acupuncture, then your skeptic alarm bells probably just exploded in your head.
The number one most important thing that makes this study worthless as evidence that acupuncture works is that they did not have a placebo group. This is just another study comparing “real” acupuncture to “sham” acupuncture without bothering to ask if acupuncture works at all. From the study:
Acupuncturists were trained to interact in one of two communication styles: ‘high’ or ‘neutral’ expectations. Patients were randomized to one of 3 groups: waiting list, ‘high’ or ‘neutral’, and nested within style, TCA or sham acupuncture over 6 weeks. Sham acupuncture was performed in non-meridian points, with shallow needles and minimal stimulation.
Does sticking needles in your skin relieve pain as much as sticking needles in your skin? Read on to find out!
TCA was not superior to sham acupuncture. However, acupuncturists’ style had significant effects on pain reduction and satisfaction, suggesting that the analgesic benefits of acupuncture can be partially mediated through placebo effects related to the acupuncturist’s behavior.
No surprises there. It doesn’t matter where you put the needles and when the practitioner is happy; it makes the patients happy. We knew this already. But this study is worthless because they had no placebo control. Remember that study that showed no difference in the effect of poking someone with a toothpick and sticking a needle in their skin? That was a good one.
There is no evidence that acupuncture “real” or “fake” works. At all. I’m disappointed that the New York Times did not show a shred of skepticism in this article. The only skepticism they had was about “real” acupuncture. They did not address whether or not there is any real benefit to sticking needles in your skin.
Lesson: the media sucks at science and health reporting.