We reviewed the evidence that acupuncture, acupressure, laser therapy or electrical stimulation help people who are trying to stop smoking.
Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese therapy, generally using fine needles inserted through the skin at specific points in the body. Needles may be stimulated by hand or using an electric current (electroacupuncture). Related therapies, in which points are stimulated without the use of needles, include acupressure, laser therapy and electrical stimulation. Needles and acupressure may be used just during treatment sessions, or continuous stimulation may be provided by using indwelling needles or beads or seeds taped to to acupressure points. The aim of these therapies is to reduce the withdrawal symptoms that people experience when they try to quit smoking. The review looked at trials comparing active treatments with sham treatments or other control conditions including advice alone, or an effective treatment such as nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) or counselling. Sham treatment involves inserting needles or applying pressure to other points of the body not believed to have an active effect, or using dummy needles that do not go through the skin, or inactive laser or electrical stimulation devices. Using this type of control means that the patients should not know whether they are receiving active treatment or not.
To assess whether there was a sustained benefit in helping people to stop smoking we looked at the proportion of people who were abstinent at least six months after quit date. We also looked at short term outcomes, up to six weeks after quit date. Evidence of benefit after six months is regarded as necessary to show that a treatment could help people stop smoking permanently.
We included 38 randomised studies published up to October 2013. Trials tested a variety of different interventions and controls. The specific points used, the number of sessions and whether there was continuous stimulation varied. Three studies (393 people) compared acupuncture to a waiting list control. Nineteen studies (1,588 people) compared active acupuncture to sham acupuncture, but only 11 of these studies included long-term follow-up of six months or more. Three studies (253 people) compared acupressure to sham acupressure but none had long-term follow-up. Two trials used laser stimulation and six (634 people) used electrostimulation. The overall quality of the evidence was moderate.
Three studies comparing acupuncture to a waiting list control and reporting long-term abstinence did not show clear evidence of benefit. For acupuncture compared with sham acupuncture, there was weak evidence of a small short-term benefit but not of any long-term benefit. Acupuncture was less effective than nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) and not shown to be better than counselling. There was limited evidence that acupressure is superior to sham acupressure in the short term but no evidence about long-term effects. In an analysis of the subgroup of trials where the treatment included continuous stimulation, those trials which used continuous acupressure to points on the ear had the largest short-term effect. The evidence from two trials using laser stimulation was inconsistent. The seven trials of electrostimulation do not suggest evidence of benefit compared to sham electrostimulation.
The review did not find consistent evidence that active acupuncture or related techniques increased the number of people who could successfully quit smoking. However, some techniques may be better than doing nothing, at least in the short term, and there is not enough evidence to dismiss the possibility that they might have an effect greater than placebo. They are likely to be less effective than current evidence-based interventions. They are safe when correctly applied.