Theatrical Placebos in Neonatology

Acupuncture is nonsense. There I have said it. I’ll probably get at least a few comments for this post, but I’m not backing down. Acupuncture is based on pre-scientific ideas about how the body works, believing that some sort of vital energy flows along meridians in the body, and that sticking a needle into the skin at certain specific points can have distant effects, by letting out the Xi.

Xi is non-existent, meridians are non-existent and there are no acupuncture points, they just don’t exist.

This is all ridiculous, and people with a medical education should know better. Trials of acupuncture in adults have shown that it doesn’t matter where you put the needles, or even if you puncture the skin or not. The better controlled the trials are the less effect there is, and trials with really good sham procedures don’t show a difference between the sham procedure controls and the actually needled groups.

Any effect is simply a placebo effect, and the whole procedure with its  insertion of needles and fake explanations has been characterized as a “theatrical placebo”. For a sampling of deconstructions of acupuncture studies just search acupuncture on the blog “respectful insolence” which you can do by following this link .

Unfortunately there are many who have been taken in by the pseudoscience of this quackery, even in neonatology. A few trials have even been published, including those using electrical stimulators of non-existent acupuncture points, and a few where lights have been shone onto those same points.

The two most recent studies I glimpsed are examples of those 2 methods, Abbasoglu A, et al. Laser acupuncture before heel lancing for pain management in healthy term newborns: a randomised controlled trial. Acupuncture in medicine. 2015;33(6):445-50. 42 term babies having a heelstick were randomized to laser acupuncture or sucrose. The study found that sucrose was better than shining a light on the Yintang point (the non-existent acupuncture points, scattered along the non-existent meridians, all have names, this one is between the eyebrows and is also called EX2).

Mitchell AJ, et al. Does Noninvasive Electrical Stimulation of Acupuncture Points (NESAP) reduce heelstick pain in neonates? Acta Paediatrica. 2016. This study used different fake acupuncture points (ZuSanLi (ST36), SanYinJiao (SP6), KunLun(Bl60), and TaiXi (KI3) which are on the legs) and randomized babies undergoing heelstick to 4 groups, sucrose with “Sham NESAP”, NESAP plus water, NESAP with sucrose, and sham NESAP with water. They randomized 142 term infants who were undergoing a heelstick procedure and analyzed the videos of their faces for PIPP scoring. In the Sham NESAP groups the electrodes were placed adjacent to these fantasy acupuncture points but the stimulator was not turned on, All babies at least had facilitated tucking and a soother, which are both effective at reducing pain from heelstick, which was shown by the relatively small mean increases in PIPP scores in all the groups. Sucrose limited the increases in PIPP compared to the groups which didn’t get sucrose, and electrical stimulation of ZuSanLi etc didn’t do anything. This study did at least have the potential for a measurable effect, because, unlike shining a light on the skin, there is at least a potential that the transcutaneous electrical stimulation could have an analgesic effect. As it appears to for, in particular, chronic pain.

Although the NESAP groups without sucrose didn’t have a large mean increase in PIPP scores, the mean peak scores were up to 4.9 and 5 (compared to 4 or less for the sucrose groups), but the standard deviations of those scores were much larger than the sucrose groups, (4 compared to less than 2) which means that there were probably substantially larger numbers of babies who had pain scores of over 6, and had appreciable pain. Which means that yet again I can say that we shouldn’t be performing heelsticks without using all the proven evidence-based methods for reducing pain prior to such procedures, of which sucrose is top of the list.

Lets stop investigating this nonsense in neonatology, we should be using our time and efforts and resources to examine therapies that have some basis in reality and science. Whatever next, ear candling, or craniosacral therapy for newborns? OH NO!

About Keith Barrington

I am a neonatologist and clinical researcher at Sainte Justine University Health Center in Montréal
This entry was posted in Neonatal Research. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Theatrical Placebos in Neonatology

  1. Pingback: Acupuncture Skepticism - What does the Science Say? Joachim's Training

  2. MysticalMillenial says:

    I also can’t tell if my comment went through or not previously.

  3. MysticalMillenial says:

    It seems that you have quite a bias towards anything related to Chinese Medicine. I appreciate your skepticism. And, sure, I can’t say I’ve necessarily heard of laser acupuncture and though I am an advocate for Chinese Medicine I cannot say I would attest to that. However, you’re also discounting the NUMEROUS studies that DO support acupuncture. Though I realize anecdotes don’t have much to stand for in terms of “validity”, I will say that acupuncture helped my menstrual period return after its 9-mo. absence. Placebo? Maybe. A pretty good one at that.

    • I don’t have any particular bias against any type of medicine, but I demand that there is evidence that a particular method actually works! Which means adequately designed studies showing better outcomes with the intervention compared to no intervention, or a different one.
      There are no adequately designed studies that show acupuncture works. Indeed there is no reason to think that it might as it is based on a complete lack of understanding of how the human body works.

      • MysticalMillenial says:

        I would disagree that there are zero adequately designed studies that demonstrate acupuncture is an effective treatment.

        Another thought: why be so dismissive of acupuncture in saying that it is ‘based on a complete lack of understanding of how the human body works’, when this tradition has been practiced for thousands of years (successfully) in the East? Not to mention acupuncture is used in place of anesthesia during open-heart surgeries in China (there is a BBC documentary on this).

        Why so many failed patients of Western medicine whom instead turn to Eastern traditional practices that often tend to be much more helpful and personable?

        Though our scientific understandings clearly have their benefits, the way we view “science” in the west is flawed. Consider our multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry. Are pills really “curing” people? Or are they making us even more sick? More sick and more dependent and more broke? It’s no wonder we “new agers” tend to dig deeper when our modern view of medicine continues to fail us.

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