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Acupuncture – what do we know?

Edzard Ernst looks at the international evidence base for acupuncture

Chinese researchers have assessed all the 3,975 articles on acupuncture published in 927 different journals in 15 languages between 1991 and 2009 [1]. These publications originated from 65 countries.

The US was the top producing country, followed by China, the UK, South Korea and Germany. The most productive institutions were Kyung Hee University (South Korea), Fudan University (China), Harvard University (US), Peking University (China) and the University of Exeter (yes, that’s my team of guys!!!).

The vast majority of articles were published in CAM or acupuncture journals. This is, in my view, not good news because we have shown that these journals publish almost no negative results [2]. The analysis [1] also reveals that, during the last five years, China has increased its production of articles hugely; in 2009 it was top of all countries. This, I believe, is also not such splendid news. Vickers and others have shown that China publishes virtually no negative results about acupuncture [3].

So there is good news and bad news about acupuncture research. The good news is that acupuncture is now a much-investigated subject – almost 4,000 articles in 19 years is respectable by anybody’s standards. The bad news is that there are reasons to suspect that a sizable percentage of these publications might be seriously biased.

In essence, this implies that we are learning a lot more about acupuncture but there are doubts whether we are, in fact, learning the truth.

Professor Edzard Ernst is professor of complementary medicine at the Peninsula Medical School, University of Exeter

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