Friday, May 11, 2012

Scientists claim electroacupuncture relieves itch

"Electroacupuncture" is more effective than a common antihistamine pill for relieving allergic itch, researchers report in a small-scale study published recently in Allergy, the European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

In electroacupuncture, two needles are inserted at classical acupuncture points, and a signal generator sends a low-frequency electrical current from one needle to the other. Whether electroacupuncture works is controversial.

The researchers, mostly Germans, led by Florian Pfab, a visiting professor at Harvard Medical School, compared electroacupuncture with the antihistamine cetirizine, and with placebo acupuncture and antihistamine, in a group of 20 patients. The patients had tested positive for type 1 hypersensitivity itch reaction to various allergens--and it was these allergens that the patients were skin-pricked with before the treatments. The scientists then asked the patients to rate how itchy they felt. The conclusion was that true  acupuncture applied during an itchy period was the most effective method. (They also tested acupuncture as a preventive measure before allergen prick--the effect was much weaker.)

Let's consider various aspects of the paper.

The very small group size. There were actually seven different subgroups out of 19 patients (one was dropped because he/she didn't feel itchy) so the subgroups were only two or three people apiece. That's way too small to produce definitive results.

Electroacupuncture is kinda weird. Were the researchers even performing it properly? I can't tell from the paper. They say they were using this device. It appears to have four separate channels--is that four separate pairs of electrodes? I used to be an electrical engineer [geek warning], and the way you set up a circuit is that one lead is the ground, and the other one is the signal. If you have four channels do you have one ground and three signals? Or four grounds and four signals? It would seem pretty dumb to connect more than one ground or signal to the body at the same time. Then you'd have current flowing all over your skin in an unpredictable pattern. I was once working in a lab where people were measuring the electrical activity of bird brains, and one of the postdoctoral researchers didn't even know what voltage was. So I'm not convinced these guys know what they're doing.

They're only treating allergic itch applied by a skin prick. If you're allergic to dust mites, you breathe it in and then you're itchy all over. You don't get chronic eczema from pinpoint contact with these allergens.

Beating antihistamine as an itch treatment for eczema doesn't mean much. In my experience antihistamines don't do anything to relieve itch.

So here's the killer: say they do know what they're doing, and the results are good. Is this a practical treatment method? I'd say no. It would only relieve the itch while the electroacupuncture was being done. The paper itself says so. Anyone with chronic eczema knows that you get it all over your body and you get it all the time. You can't just run off to the acupuncturist when the itch on your feet is driving you nuts, because ten minutes after the appointment, your scalp or the backs of your hands will be flaring up. You might as well pinch your skin, creating pain to dull the itch.

OK, I've been critical enough. It is interesting to see that acupuncture is being taken seriously, but scarce research funding should go to more useful projects.

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