Over the years, a range of putative therapies for ME/CFS have been tested in controlled trials – and the latest is Qigong, a complementary and alternative medicine said to improve health, prevent disease and prolong life. Qigong is commonly thought to have originated with the Yellow Emperor (2696–2598 BCE) and the ‘Huangdi Neijing’ book of internal medicine.
Researchers from the University of Hong Kong (full-text article) have reported improvements in symptoms of physical and mental fatigue, and depression, after Qigong therapy in 72 patients with a “CFS-like” illness, compared with 65 patients in a waiting list control group. Qigong involved mindful meditation, rhythmic breathing and concentrated relaxation followed by 10 kinds of movement, and was delivered by an experienced Taoist Qigong master for 10 sessions twice a week for 5 weeks. These results are very similar, in fact, to findings in 2012 reported by the same researchers, so they come as no great surprise.
The key point is that studies like this – where an ‘active’ therapy (delivered face-to-face by a therapist–expert) is compared with an ‘inactive’ control group – tend to have positive results, i.e. for the therapy to be found ‘helpful’ whether or not it is in reality. This well-recognised phenomenon is bound up with various non-specific effects thought to occur in clinical trials in all illnesses (discussed here). So, we cannot conclude from this study that Qigong is specifically effective for ME/CFS or its symptoms. And the same applies to some of the other ‘active’ treatments that have been similarly tested over the years, from psychological interventions to symptom management strategies to alternative therapies. Makes you think, doesn’t it? When the chips are down, do we really know what ‘works’ and what doesn’t?
Reference: Effects of qigong exercise on fatigue, anxiety, and depressive symptoms of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome-like illness: a randomized controlled trial. Chan JS, et al. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med, 2013; 2013: 485341.