Background: Acupuncture-like sensory stimulation activates multiple efferent (nerve) pathways leading to altered activity in numerous neural systems. Acupuncture is widely accepted by Chinese people and it is increasingly requested by patients and their relatives in Western countries.
Objectives: To assess the effectiveness and safety of acupuncture in patients with acute stroke.
Search strategy: We searched the Cochrane Stroke Group trials register (last searched August 2003), the Chinese Stroke Trials Register (August 2003) and the Chinese Acupuncture Trials Register (August 2003). Electronic searches were performed in the Cochrane Controlled Trials Register (The Cochrane Library, Issue 3, 2003), MEDLINE (1966 to 2003), EMBASE (1980 to 2003), Alternative Medicine Database (1985 to 2003), CINAHL (1982 to 2003) and the Chinese Biological Medicine Database (1981 to 2003). Reference lists of systematic reviews and identified trials were handsearched.
Selection criteria: Randomised and quasi-randomised trials of acupuncture started within 30 days of stroke onset, compared with placebo/sham acupuncture or open control in patients with acute ischaemic and/or haemorrhagic stroke. Needling into skin was required for acupuncture.
Data collection and analysis: Two reviewers selected trials for inclusion, assessed trial quality, and extracted the data independently. Authors of trials were contacted for missing data.
Main results: Fourteen trials involving 1208 patients were included. Ten trials included patients with only ischaemic stroke. When acupuncture was compared with sham acupuncture or open control, there was a borderline significant trend towards fewer patients being dead or dependent (Odds ratio (OR) 0.66, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.43 to 0.99), and significantly fewer being dead or needing institutional care (OR 0.58, 95% CI 0.35 to 0.96) in the acupuncture group after three months or more. There was also a significant difference favouring acupuncture in the mean change of global neurological deficit score during the treatment period (standardized mean difference (SMD) 1.17, 95% CI 0.30 to 2.04). Comparison of acupuncture with sham acupuncture only showed a statistically significant difference on death or requiring institutional care (OR 0.49, 95% CI 0.25 to 0.96), but not on death or dependency (OR 0.67, 95% CI 0.40 to 1.12), or change of global neurological deficit score (SMD 0.01, 95% CI -0.55 to 0.57). Severe adverse events with acupuncture (dizziness, intolerable pain and infection of acupoints) were rare (6/386, 1.55%).
Authors' conclusions: Acupuncture appeared to be safe but without clear evidence of benefit. The number of patients is too small to be certain whether acupuncture is effective for treatment of acute ischaemic or haemorrhagic stroke. Larger, methodologically-sound trials are required.