Manual and Electrical Needle Stimulation in Acupuncture Research: Pitfalls and Challenges of Heterogeneity
Langevin Helene M., Schnyer Rosa, MacPherson Hugh, Davis Robert, Harris Richard E., Napadow Vitaly, Wayne Peter M., Milley Ryan J., Lao Lixing, Stener-Victorin Elisabet, Kong Jiang-Ti, Hammerschlag Richard, and on behalf of the Executive Board of the Society for Acupuncture Research.
In the field of acupuncture research there is an implicit yet unexplored assumption that the evidence on manual and electrical stimulation techniques, derived from basic science studies, clinical trials, systematic reviews, and meta-analyses, is generally interchangeable. Such interchangeability would justify a bidirectional approach to acupuncture research, where basic science studies and clinical trials each inform the other. This article examines the validity of this fundamental assumption by critically reviewing the literature and comparing manual to electrical acupuncture in basic science studies, clinical trials, and meta-analyses. The evidence from this study does not support the assumption that these techniques are interchangeable. This article also identifies endemic methodologic limitations that have impaired progress in the field. For example, basic science studies have not matched the frequency and duration of manual needle stimulation to the frequency and duration of electrical stimulation. Further, most clinical trials purporting to compare the two types of stimulation have instead tested electroacupuncture as an adjunct to manual acupuncture. The current findings reveal fundamental gaps in the understanding of the mechanisms and relative effectiveness of manual versus electrical acupuncture. Finally, future research directions are suggested to better differentiate electrical from manual simulation, and implications for clinical practice are discussed.