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Review Article

2018; 11(6): 343-354

Published online December 1, 2018 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jams.2018.08.209

Copyright © Medical Association of Pharmacopuncture Institute.

The Application of Auriculotherapy to the Treatment of Chronic Spontaneous Urticaria: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis

Libing Zhu1*, Yunjin Kim2, Zongbao Yang1

1Department of Medicine, Xiamen University, Xiamen, Fujian, China
2School of Medicine, Xiamen University Malaysia, Sepang, Selangor, Malaysia

Correspondence to:Libing Zhu

Received: May 8, 2018; Revised: August 8, 2018; Accepted: August 30, 2018

Abstract

Auriculotherapy has been extensively used for chronic spontaneous urticaria in China. However, the evidence of its effectiveness and safety for the treatment of chronic spontaneous urticaria is insufficient. Hence, we conducted this study to compare auriculotherapy or auriculotherapy joint treatment with Western medicine for the cure of chronic spontaneous urticaria. This meta-analysis of seven randomized controlled trials showed that auriculotherapy or auriculotherapy joint treatment was significantly superior to Western medicine in curing clinical signs and symptoms of chronic spontaneous urticaria [odds ration (OR), 2.61; 95% confidence interval (CI), 1.54–4.43; p = 0.0004) and also better in total effect rate (OR, 3.81; 95% CI, 2.07–7.01; p<0.0001). But, auriculotherapy or auriculotherapy joint treatment was similar to Western medicine in improving clinical signs and symptoms of chronic spontaneous urticaria (OR, 0.74; 95% CI, 0.35–1.56; p = 0.42). Auriculotherapy or auriculotherapy joint treatment was safer than Western medicine for curing chronic spontaneous urticaria (OR, 0.26; 95% CI, 0.09–0.80; p = 0.02). Auriculotherapy alone or auriculotherapy joint treatment appears to be more effective and safer than Western medicine that contains antihistamines in the treatment of chronic spontaneous urticaria. However, these findings should be interpreted with caution due to the unclear risk bias of methodological quality, and further studies with large-scale, better, and more rigorously designed protocol are necessary to prove these findings.

Keywords: auricular acupuncture, auriculotherapy, urticaria, review, meta-analysis

1. Background

Chronic spontaneous urticaria is a disease characterized by the spontaneous symptoms of hives, angioedema, or both which last more than 6 weeks once patients are off treatment [1, 2]. About 0.5–1% of the population suffers from chronic spontaneous urticaria, while larger scale studies of the prevalence of chronic spontaneous urticaria are still lacking [3]. Chronic spontaneous urticaria not only has significant impact on the quality of life but also causes a decrease in the performance of working, education, and learning [2-4]. Infections caused by drugs and food, pseudo-allergic reactions, and autoreactive mechanisms are supposed to be the critical eliciting factors for suffering chronic spontaneous urticaria. However, for a majority of chronic spontaneous urticaria sufferers, the underlying mechanism is still unclear [1]. Nonsedating second-generation antihistamines are strongly recommended as the first-line treatment for chronic spontaneous urticaria [1, 3]. Besides, corticosteroids, immunosuppressors, and drugs which can inhibit mastocyte degranulation are considered as alternative treatments for chronic spontaneous urticaria [1]. Although nonsedating second-generation antihistamines are relatively safe and effective for the treatment of chronic spontaneous urticaria, the disadvantage of its lengthy treatment circle and the repeated breakout of the disease led to the poor patients compliance [5, 6]. Thus, the alternative treatments have not yet been listed in the guideline of therapy for the treatment of chronic spontaneous urticaria due to the severe side effects [1]. Hence, the need for additional effective and safe therapy for chronic spontaneous urticaria is clear.

Auriculotherapy, also called auricular acupuncture, was developed by Dr Paul Nogier in France, which refers to using acupuncture, pressure, moxibustion, magnet, laser irradiation, electroacupuncture, or injection to stimulate the acupoints on the auricle to achieve the purpose of preventing and treating the disease [7, 8]. The main indications of auriculotherapy include pain (such as headache, migraine, and prosopalgia), allergic diseases (such as urticaria, rhinitis, and allergic asthma), smoking cessation, weight loss, etc. [7]. There are various academic viewpoints on the mechanism of the use of auriculotherapy for healing the disease, but the viewpoints mainly focus on the two parts [8]. The first argument is about the auricular points closely related to organs and meridians from the theory of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Physiologically, meridians can communicate with the body inside and outside, run Qi and blood, adjust Yin and Yang, resist pathogenic evils, and protect the body. Pathologically, meridians are a channel for pathogenic evils to invade body as well as a road to reflect disease symptoms. According to the TCM theory, outer appearance from the inside, positive reaction points appear in the auricle such as painful sensibility, low resistance, high amount of conductive, or even deformation or discoloration, all these signs provide evidence for the diagnosis of the disease. Moreover, auriculotherapy practitioners can diagnose the disease according to these signs and change the pathological state through needling or pressing such auricular points [8]. The second belief is about the corresponding relationship between auricular points and bio-holographic law, which means organisms are a big system that consists of many relative independent small systems in which there is a holographic correspondence between the big system and small system. In other words, every related independent part of an organism is a microcosm of the whole, which contains all the information of an organism. This theory can be well illustrated by a research study conducted by David Alimi which suggested that the auricular reflection area is directly connected to the corresponding encephalic region. The correspondent S1 cortex showed a cortical activated state when auricular right thumb area was stimulated, which was similar to directly stimulated right thumb [8, 9]. Compared with routine acupuncture, the needle positions of auriculotherapy are located only in the auricle where no important organs and vessels are located. Moreover, auricle is too thin to produce the phenomenon of bent needle or stuck needle. Routine acupuncture has been proved to be a safe treatment with a low risk of serious side effects; hence, in comparison with routine acupuncture, auriculotherapy is a safer procedure [10-14]. Given its advantages, whether auriculotherapy is effective for treating chronic spontaneous urticaria is a highly relevant question.

Our objective was to assess the effects and safety of auriculotherapy for chronic spontaneous urticaria through conducting a systematic review and meta-analysis.

2. Methods

2.1. Study selection

We searched the PubMed, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, and Embase in July 2015 to identify randomized controlled trials (RCTs) without any language restriction. We also searched Chinese databases including Wanfang database, China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI), and Chinese Scientific Journal Database (VIP). For English digital databases, we combined auriculotherapy-related terms (auricular acupuncture, ear acupuncture, auricular point injection, and auricular tapping) with urticaria-related terms (nettle rash, hives, rubella, wheals, and roteln) and limited the search to RCTs. For Chinese digital databases, the following search words were used: “erzhen, and erxue” (which means “auriculotherapy”) and “xunmazhen, fengtuan, youfeng, yinzhen and fengzhenkuai” (which means “urticaria”). Reference lists of all previous reviews and retried trials were manually searched in case of other relevant trials. The on-going trials were searched from clinical trial registration websites. Relevant conference proceedings, abstracts, unpublished studies, gray literature, and peer-reviewed journals were also hand searched. For the retrieved articles, we first screened the titles and abstracts and then deleted the obviously irrelevant studies. If we were unsure about whether the trial was eligible for inclusion after reading the title and abstract, full text was screened in detail. Full texts were downloaded if they meet the eligibility criteria.

2.2. Data extraction

LB Zhu and YJ Kim searched, respectively, the databases and determined the eligible studies first. And then, they independently extracted data on participants’ characteristics and details of the trials design such as sample size, intervention procedures, control, outcome measures, and follow-up. Results and adverse events were also extracted from studies. We resolved disagreement by discussion first, and then if we did not reach an agreement after the discussion, we consulted with ZB Yang. If there was any ambiguity of information reported by articles which was beyond our understanding, we contacted the corresponding authors of articles to confirm the data and clarify ambiguity via telephone or email.

2.3. Inclusion criteria

Studies were included if they met the following criteria: (1) RCTs; (2) participants: participants who suffered from chronic spontaneous urticaria regardless of age, gender, type, course of disease, severity, and diagnosed with TCM diagnosis criteria or international criteria; (3) intervention: auriculotherapy as intervention measure alone or auriculotherapy combined with acupuncture, decoction, or Western medicine as intervention therapy; (4) control: Western medicine that contained antihistamine ingredient was considered eligible; and (5) outcomes: primary outcome was the improvement of clinical signs and symptoms including wheals fade, itching disappear, and wheals reappear time that evaluated by recovery, improve and invalid criteria. Secondary outcome included total effect rate and adverse events.

2.4. Exclusion criteria

Studies were excluded if they meet one or more following criteria: (1) trials that included both chronic spontaneous urticaria and acute urticaria participants; (2) participants complicated with various skin problems; (3) same results reported repeatedly; and (4) incomplete data.

2.5. Methodological assessment

LB Zhu and YJ Kim independently assessed the methodological quality of included studies by using the risk of bias tools in accordance with Cochrane Handbook, version 5.1.0 [15]. We resolved disagreements by discussion; if consensus still cannot be achieved, a third party (ZB Yang) was involved. Risk of bias for assessing the methodological quality of RCTs mainly included six items: selection bias (random sequence generation and allocation concealment), performance bias and detection bias (blinding), attrition bias (incomplete outcome data), reporting bias (selective reporting), and others bias. Each item was ranked as low, high, and unclear risk.

2.6. Statistical analysis

We performed statistical analysis by using Cochrane Collaboration Review Manage software (RevMan 5.2). Dichotomous outcomes were performed by relative risk (RR) with 95% confidence intervals (95% CIs). Continuous data were expressed as mean differences (MDs); if different measure tools were used, standardized mean difference (SMD) was used. We used I2 statistic to assess the heterogeneity. I2 value lesser than 50% may represent insignificant or moderate heterogeneity, and a fix-effect model was applied. I2 value equal or greater than 50% may represent substantial heterogeneity, and a random-effect model was used [15]. Sensitivity analysis was performed to assess the robustness of pooled data and conclusions for this systematic review when I2 value showed a substantial heterogeneity. The method of sensitivity analysis included changing the effect model such as changing a fix-effect model to a random-effect model to adjust outcomes and removing some included studies and then pooling data together to compare with the previous pooled data that did not remove these included studies. If the final difference was changed from insignificant to significant or significant to insignificant, it showed that the pooled data were unreliable. On the contrary, the pooled data were robust if the difference kept same. Funnel plots were generated for evaluating publication bias when more than 10 trials were identified to report the same results.

3. Results

3.1. Trial selection

A total of 1803 potential RCT literature citations were initially searched. We excluded 947 articles due to the duplications or irrelevant articles. We screened the full texts of 856 records, of which 840 articles were finally excluded for the following reasons: non-RCTs, included both acute and chronic spontaneous urticaria participants, review articles, clinical experience summary, animal research, and using auriculotherapy as a control group. As a result, we included 16 potentially appropriate RCTs. Among the 16 potentially appropriate RCTs, 7 studies were excluded because 3 studies were not chronic spontaneous urticaria, 1 study showed inconsistent outcome data, and 3 studies were nonrandomized controlled trials. Finally, 9 studies were used in qualitative synthesis but excluded from meta-analysis because of insufficient outcome data. Seven studies were finally included for meta-analysis, and the comparison of effect and adverse events of auriculotherapy alone or auriculotherapy joint treatment with Western medicine was conducted. Details of the excluded studies and the reasons for exclusion were available on request from authors. Detailed study flow is listed in Fig. 1.

Figure 1. Study flow diagram.

3.2. Study characteristics

Seven included studies were conducted in Mainland China, and all of them were published in Chinese even we set no language restriction in the retrieval phase [16-22]. In total, 624 participants with chronic spontaneous urticaria were involved in the 7 studies, of whom 321 participants were in the observational group and 303 in the control group, aged between 8 and 75 years, and the duration of disease varied from 7 days to 30 years. Four studies involved participants younger than 18 years [17, 18, 20, 21]. Auriculotherapy was adopted as an intervention in 2 studies [20, 22], and other 5 studies used auriculotherapy joint treatment as an intervention method: auriculotherapy combined with modified Taohongsiwu decoction [21], Tapping Liu Shen Wan that is using a small seed-shaped herb on both the auricular points and acupoints [17], auricular acupuncture combined with abdomen acupuncture [19], auriculotherapy combined with Western medicine which was the same as the Western medicine used in the control group [16], and auriculotherapy combined with routine acupuncture [18]. The Western medicine that contains an antihistamine ingredient was adopted as a control in all studies [16-22]. All studies have shown an improvement of the participants' clinical signs and symptoms (i.e., recovery, improve, and invalid), of which 5 studies were according to the standard of diagnosis and curative effect of Chinese medical symptom which was issued by state administration of TCM [18-23]. Recovery: wheals fade, clinical signs disappear, and stop recurring; Improvemnet: 30% wheals fade or recurring time extended after fading, and less itchy; Invalidly: wheals and itching have no significant improvement, or wheals fade lesser than 30% [23]. The total effect rate means the number of recovery and the improved participants divide by the total number of participants. All studies reported the total effect rate [16-22]. The curative standard of the other 2 studies also classified as recovery, improvement, invalidity, but they meant totally different things. In Caós study, recovery means the patients' wheals fade, itchy disappear with negative skin scratch test, received 1 or 2 courses auricular tapping, and stop recurring after half a year follow up; Improve means wheals fade, occasional attack, less itchy, received auricular tapping lesser than 3 courses and stop recurring after 3 months follow up; Invalidity means wheals and itching attacking occasionally with positive skin scratch test [17]. In Yang's study, recovery mean clinical signs and symptoms disappear, no attack after drug withdrawal more than 30 days; “Improve” mean clinical signs and symptoms disappear, no attack after drug withdrawal within 30 days; “Effective” mean clinical signs and symptoms alleviate after treatment; “Invalid” mean clinical signs and symptoms keep same or worse after 20 days treatment [16]. Five studies reported adverse events [16, 17, 19, 20, 22] and two studies set up follow up [16, 17]. Detail characteristics of the included studies were listed in Table 1.

At the end of treatmentRecovery, improve, and invalid criteria according to standards for diagnosis and curative effect of Chinese medical symptom[23].Adverse events5/8715/87NR0/87Bai 2009[22]T: Bid, 10 times as one course, totally 2 courseC: 6 weeksWestern medicine: ranitidine 150 mg twice a day, ebastine 10 mg twice a dayAt the end of treatmentRecovery, improve, and invalid criteria according to standards for diagnosis and curative effect of Chinese medical symptom[23].Adverse events0/3216/30 Sleepiness8/30 Constipation7/30 dry mouthNR0/62Ni 2010[21]T: each acupoint press 30 times, 3∼4 times per day, 7 days as a course, unhealed patients relaxed 5 days and then received the second course treatmentC: 7 days as a course,Hismanal tablet (oral) 10 mg qd, Vitamin C (oral) 0.2 Tid, calcium gluconate 10 ml puls glucose 20 ml intravenous injection qd, calamine lotion external washing TidAt the end of treatmentRecovery, improve, and invalid criteria according to standards for diagnosis and curative effect of Chinese medical symptom[23].NRNRNR0/90Cao2003[17]T:preussre point 5∼6 times/per day, 6 days as a courseC: tid, 6 days as a courseChlortrimeton 4 mgAt the end of treatmentRecovery: wheals fade, itchy disappear, negative skin scratch test, received 1 or 2 courses auricular tapping, and stop recurring after half a year follow up; Improve: wheals fade, occasional attack, less itchy, receive auricular tapping lesser than 3 courses and stop recurring after 3 months follow up;Invalid: wheals and itching attack occasionally, and positive skin scratch test.Adverse events3/45 Slightly skin itch at the rubberized fabric adhere part5/45 obvious symptoms of sleepiness6months0/90Yang 2002[16]T:Pressure auricular points 5 times/per day, 10 days as a course, totally 2 coursesC:10 days as a course, totally 2 coursesTerfenadine 60 mg bid, cimetidine 0.2 g tidAt the end of treatmentRecovery: Clinical signs and symptoms disappear, no attack after drug withdrawal more than 30 days; Improve: Clinical signs and symptoms disappear, no attack after drug withdrawal within 30 days; Effective: Clinical signs and symptoms alleviate after treatment; Invalid: Clinical signs and symptoms keep same or worse after 20 days treatment.Adverse events1/45 stomach discomfort1/45 stomach discomfort1 month0/80Chen 2000[18]T:acupuncture treatment once a day, 6 times as a course, totally 6 courses; pressuring auricular points 4∼5 times per days, 3∼5 minutes every time, 6 days as a courseC: 6 days as a course, totally 6 coursesChlortrimeton 4 mg, Tid (oral), cyproheptadine 2 mg one time every night; Vitamin C 0.2 g, Tid; Vitamin B6 20 mg, Tid,At the end of treatmentRecovery, improve, and invalid criteria according to standards for diagnosis and curative effect of Chinese medical symptom[23].NRNRNR0/60Cheng 2014[19]T:abdomen acupuncture combined with auricular acupuncture once a day, 4 weeks as a courseC: 4 weeks as a courseOral cetirizine 10 mg before 22:00At the end of treatmentRecovery, improve, and invalid criteria according to standards for diagnosis and curative effect of Chinese medical symptom[23].Adverse events0/451/35 stomach discomfortNR0/80

R: number of subjects randomized; A: number of subjects analyzed; T: treatment group; C: control group; Ref: reference; WDC: Western medicine diagnostic criteria; CDC: Chinese medicine diagnostic criteria; NR: not reported..

Recovery: wheals fade, clinical signs disappear, and stop recurring; Improve: 30% wheals fade or recurring time extended after fading, and less itchy; Invalid: wheals and itching have no significant improvement, or wheals fade lesser than 30%[23].

&md=tbl&idx=1' data-target="#file-modal"">Table 1

Characteristics of included trials..

Study ID [Ref.]SampleGenderAge (yr)Range or Mean ± SDDiagnostic standardDuration of disease (Mean ± SD)InterventionAuricular points Selected
Male (n)Female (n)
Meng 2015[20]T:87C:87T:34C:45T:53C: 42T: 15∼60, 54.2 ± 13.2C: 16∼63, 55.7 ± 14.4WDC: Practice of dermatologyT:13.4 ± 2.1monthsC:10.4 ± 1.7monthsAuricular points injection vs Western medicineTF4
Bai 2009[22]T:32C:30T:10C:12T:22C:18T:23∼72,42.3C:25∼75,44.6CDC: Standards for diagnosis and curative effect of Chinese medical symptomT:6m∼5yearsC:4m∼6yearsAuricular tapping vs Western medicineUrticarial point, HX1, CO14,TG2p, AT4, CO10, CO13
Ni 2010[21]T:45C:45T:20C:21T: 25C:24T:15∼65, 38.32 ± 13.25C:16∼68, 38.32 ± 13.25NRT:2montsh∼6years, 2.65 ± 0.5C:2months∼6years, 2.65 ± 0.5Modified Taohongsiwu Decoction combined with auricular tapping vs Western medicineCO14, Urticarial point, p2, TG2p, CO7, CO18
Cao 2003[17]T:45C:45T:26C:22T:19C:23T:17∼48,32C:8∼50, 28Clinical dermatologyT:7days∼5 monthsC: 10days∼6monthsTaping Liu Shen Wan on the auricular points and acupoints vs Western medicineCO14, CO13, CO12, CO18
Yang 2002[16]T:45C:35T:30C:17T:15C:18T:24∼45C:25∼48NRT:3∼24monthsC:6∼19monthsAuricular tapping combined with western medicine vs western medicineCO14, Urticarial point, CO18, TG2p, AT3
Chen 2000[18]T:32C:28T:12C:10T:20C:18T:15∼64,40C:16∼66,38CDC: Standards for diagnosis and curative effect of Chinese medical symptomT:3months∼30years, 4yearsC:4months∼28years, 3.8yearsAuricular tapping combined with acupuncture vs western medicineSF1.2i, CO14, CO15, TF4, TG2P, CO4,
Cheng 2014[19]T:35C:33NRNR22∼40CDC: Standards for diagnosis and curative effect of Chinese medical symptom? ∼ 1 yearAbdominal acupuncture combined with auricular acupuncture vs Western medicineHX6.7i, TF4,CO14, TG2P
Study IDFrequency and course of treatmentControl InterventionsOutcome Observation TimeOutcome MeasuresAdverse Events per Group (n/n+)Follow upDrop-out (n/n+)
AuriculotherapyControl
Meng 2015[20]T:Bid, 10 times as one courseC:NRWestern medicine (didn't mention the drug name)At the end of treatmentRecovery, improve, and invalid criteria according to standards for diagnosis and curative effect of Chinese medical symptom[23].Adverse events5/8715/87NR0/87
Bai 2009[22]T: Bid, 10 times as one course, totally 2 courseC: 6 weeksWestern medicine: ranitidine 150 mg twice a day, ebastine 10 mg twice a dayAt the end of treatmentRecovery, improve, and invalid criteria according to standards for diagnosis and curative effect of Chinese medical symptom[23].Adverse events0/3216/30 Sleepiness8/30 Constipation7/30 dry mouthNR0/62
Ni 2010[21]T: each acupoint press 30 times, 3∼4 times per day, 7 days as a course, unhealed patients relaxed 5 days and then received the second course treatmentC: 7 days as a course,Hismanal tablet (oral) 10 mg qd, Vitamin C (oral) 0.2 Tid, calcium gluconate 10 ml puls glucose 20 ml intravenous injection qd, calamine lotion external washing TidAt the end of treatmentRecovery, improve, and invalid criteria according to standards for diagnosis and curative effect of Chinese medical symptom[23].NRNRNR0/90
Cao2003[17]T:preussre point 5∼6 times/per day, 6 days as a courseC: tid, 6 days as a courseChlortrimeton 4 mgAt the end of treatmentRecovery: wheals fade, itchy disappear, negative skin scratch test, received 1 or 2 courses auricular tapping, and stop recurring after half a year follow up; Improve: wheals fade, occasional attack, less itchy, receive auricular tapping lesser than 3 courses and stop recurring after 3 months follow up;Invalid: wheals and itching attack occasionally, and positive skin scratch test.Adverse events3/45 Slightly skin itch at the rubberized fabric adhere part5/45 obvious symptoms of sleepiness6months0/90
Yang 2002[16]T:Pressure auricular points 5 times/per day, 10 days as a course, totally 2 coursesC:10 days as a course, totally 2 coursesTerfenadine 60 mg bid, cimetidine 0.2 g tidAt the end of treatmentRecovery: Clinical signs and symptoms disappear, no attack after drug withdrawal more than 30 days; Improve: Clinical signs and symptoms disappear, no attack after drug withdrawal within 30 days; Effective: Clinical signs and symptoms alleviate after treatment; Invalid: Clinical signs and symptoms keep same or worse after 20 days treatment.Adverse events1/45 stomach discomfort1/45 stomach discomfort1 month0/80
Chen 2000[18]T:acupuncture treatment once a day, 6 times as a course, totally 6 courses; pressuring auricular points 4∼5 times per days, 3∼5 minutes every time, 6 days as a courseC: 6 days as a course, totally 6 coursesChlortrimeton 4 mg, Tid (oral), cyproheptadine 2 mg one time every night; Vitamin C 0.2 g, Tid; Vitamin B6 20 mg, Tid,At the end of treatmentRecovery, improve, and invalid criteria according to standards for diagnosis and curative effect of Chinese medical symptom[23].NRNRNR0/60
Cheng 2014[19]T:abdomen acupuncture combined with auricular acupuncture once a day, 4 weeks as a courseC: 4 weeks as a courseOral cetirizine 10 mg before 22:00At the end of treatmentRecovery, improve, and invalid criteria according to standards for diagnosis and curative effect of Chinese medical symptom[23].Adverse events0/451/35 stomach discomfortNR0/80

R: number of subjects randomized; A: number of subjects analyzed; T: treatment group; C: control group; Ref: reference; WDC: Western medicine diagnostic criteria; CDC: Chinese medicine diagnostic criteria; NR: not reported..

Recovery: wheals fade, clinical signs disappear, and stop recurring; Improve: 30% wheals fade or recurring time extended after fading, and less itchy; Invalid: wheals and itching have no significant improvement, or wheals fade lesser than 30%[23].


4. Methodological quality

The included studies were evaluated as unclear risk of bias according to the predefined methodological quality assessment criteria (Figure 2, Figure 3). 6 studies didn't report the way to generate random sequence and allocation concealment [16, 17-21]. 1 study mentioned the way to generate random sequence, but it was a wrong statement and it did not report how allocation concealment performed [22]. No studies conducted blinding procedures. The outcome showed that all studies did not have dropouts. Estimation of sample size were not mentioned by any studies. 4 studies reported the baseline characteristics were comparable [18, 20-22], but other 3 studies didn't mention whether the baseline characteristics were comparable or not [16, 17, 19].

Figure 2. Risk of bias graph.
Figure 3. Risk of bias summary.

4.1. Effects of interventions

(1) Total improvement of clinical signs and symptoms

This study conducted a meta-analysis of the improvement of clinical signs and symptoms since five studies have the common outcome measures—recovery, improve and invalid criteria. Caós and Yang's study also have the recovery, improve and invalid criteria, but the content of these criterias were totally different from other 5 studies so they were excluded for pooled analysis and separately meta-analysis was conducted for them. Meta-analysis of five studies showed that auriculotherapy or auriculotherapy joint treatment was better than western medicine in curing clinical signs and symptoms of chronic spontaneous urticaria (OR 2.61; 95% CI 1.54 to 4.43; p = 0.0004) [18-22]. Auriculotherapy or auriculotherapy joint treatment was similar to western medicine in improving clinical signs and symptoms of chronic spontaneous urticaria (OR 0.74; 95% CI 0.35 to 1.56; p = 0.42) [18-22]. Much more participants in western medicine group showed invalid to treatment as compared with auriculotherapy or auriculotherapy joint treatment (OR 0.26; 95% CI 0.14 to 0.48; p<0.0001) [18-22] (Figs. 4 and 5).

Figure 4. Effects of auriculotherapy or auriculotherapy joint treatment for chronic spontaneous urticaria compared with western medicine.
Figure 5. Effects of auriculotherapy compared with western medicine for chronic spontaneous urticaria (different definition of recovery, improve, invalid).

(2) Total effect rate

Also Caós and Yang's studies were excluded for meta-analysis of total effect rate due to the different definition of recovery, improve and invalid criteria. Meta-analysis of five studies showed that auriculotherapy or auriculotherapy joint treatment was superior to western medicine from the total effect rate in treating chronic spontaneous urticaria (OR 3.81; 95% CI 2.07 to 7.01; p<0.0001) [18-22] (Figs. 4 and 5).

(3) Adverse events

Five studies reported adverse events of auriculotherapy or auriculotherapy joint treatment. One study only reported the number of adverse events but didn't mention the detailed symptoms and signs [20]. Bai's study reported that no people suffered adverse events in auriculotherapy group, in western medicine group 16 participants had the problem of sleeplessness, 8 suffered constipation and 7 suffered dry mouth [22]. Caós study mentioned three participants in auriculotherapy joint treatment group slightly suffered skin itchy at the rubberized fabric adhere part, five participants in western medicine group suffered obvious symptoms of sleeplessness [17]. Yang's study reported one stomach discomfort in auriculotherapy joint treatment group, also one stomach discomfort in western medicine group [16]. Cheng's study showed one stomach discomfort participants in western medicine group and no adverse events occurred in auriculotherapy joint treatment group [19]. Overall, auriculotherapy or auriculotherapy joint treatment was significant safer than western medicine in the treatment of participants who suffered from chronic spontaneous urticaria (OR 0.26; 95% CI 0.09 to 0.80; p = 0.02) [16, 17, 19, 20, 22] (Fig. 6).

Figure 6. Adverse events of auriculotherapy or auriculotherapy joint treatment for chronic spontaneous urticaria compared with western medicine.

5. Discussion

Even though auriculotherapy alone or auriculotherapy joint treatment indeed showed a better effectiveness in curing and total improvement of clinical signs and symptoms of chronic spontaneous urticaria participants as compared with western medicine by meta-analysis. Moreover, no serious adverse events were reported in all studies. Current evidence from several small-scale and unclear quality RCTs make us unable to draw clinical conclusion that auriculotherapy alone or auriculotherapy joint treatment was an effective and safe treatment for participants with chronic spontaneous urticaria.

The evidence of this systematic review covered different groups of people who suffered from chronic spontaneous urticaria, which included adolescents, adults and the aged, with different course of disease. Thus, the findings of this systematic review can be suitable for various population. However, clear judgment of the quality of included studies cannot be made due to the inadequate information reported, which also hindered us to draw conclusion for clinical practice. For example, two studies didn't report any diagnosis criteria of chronic spontaneous urticaria [16, 21], and three studies even didn't mention whether the baseline characteristic between observation and control group was comparable or not [16, 17, 19]. All studies reported they were randomized studies, but the majority of them didn't describe the way to generate random sequence and allocation concealment procedure [16-21]. Only one study reported how random sequence generation was conducted, but it was a wrong statement [22]. We attempted to contact the authors for related-information via email or telephone but no responses.

No studies conducted blinding procedure because it was considered to be impossible and unnecessary to conduct blinding but might exist potential risk which we cannot detected at that moment which we categorized as unclear risk of bias rather than low risk or high risk [15-22], because firstly they were totally different treatment methods used in observational and control group. Auriculotherapy means using acupuncture, pressure, moxibustion, magnet, laser irradiation, electroacupuncture or injection to stimulate the acupoints on the auricle, while western medicine was taken orally. Hence, anybody can figure out the real treatment they received, and it became impossible to perform blinding. Secondly, the outcome measurements were the total improvement of clinical signs and symptoms. Symptoms were subjective feelings and the participants might lie to doctors by exaggerating the curative effect or their conditions which may led to Hawthorne effect [15]. But clinical signs such as wheals fade was objective, so participants cannot determine whether wheals fade or not. Most importantly, only when both clinical signs and symptoms were improved, can we draw conclusion the condition of participants was improved. Although it was impossible to blind both participants and doctors, it can be blinded to statistician. Statistician might be modified the data in order to have a better outcome, even though it was only a suppose, it may become a potential bias. So we finally categorized these studies as unclear bias of risk.

Using auriculotherapy alone as an intervention method in trials was rarely (two studies in this meta-analysis [20, 21]), majority studies choose auriculotherapy combined with other treatments as an intervention (five studies in this meta-analysis [16, 19, 22]). In this meta-analysis, so called auriculotherapy joint treatment mean auriculotherapy combined with totally different kinds of treatment and every joint treatment was single. It was meaningless for us to conduct analysis for each single study through discussion. Hence, we pooled both auriculotherapy alone and auriculotherapy joint treatment together for meta-analysis.

We inferred that auriculotherapy may be safe and can be applied for people suffering from chronic spontaneous urticaria. Auriculotherapy alone or auriculotherapy combined with western medicine, herbal decoction or routine acupuncture may totally improve the clinical signs and symptoms of chronic spontaneous urticaria. We sorted the top five most frequently selected auricular points were TG2p, urticarial point, CO14, CO18, and TF4. According to TCM theory, lung govern skin and hair, so CO14 is the first priority choice for dermatosis. Undoubtedly, urticarial point is a key point for chronic spontaneous urticaria. TG2p and CO18 can regulate nerve and humoral immunity, also have the function of anti-allergenic. TF4 can adjust cerebral cortex, sedation, soothe the nerves, and stop itchy [21, 22, 24, 25]. Hence, these five acupoints including TG2p, urticarial point, CO14, CO18, and TF4 can be recommended as the first priority choice for chronic spontaneous urticaria in clinic.

We give the following suggestions for clinical trials on the use of auriculotherapy for the treatment chronic spontaneous urticaria in the future through conducting this meta-analysis. Firstly, trial protocols is highly recommended to register in case of selective outcome report. Secondly, sample size calculation should be reported, also the way to generate random sequence and concealment allocation. Additionally, both intention-to-treat analysis and per-protocol analysis are needed to be done. Lastly, future study reports are best to follow the Standards for Reporting Interventions in Controlled Trials of Acupuncture (STRICTA), and the 25-item checklist and a flow diagram of Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials Statement (CONSORT) [26, 27].

6. Conclusion

Auriculotherapy alone or auriculotherapy joint treatment appears to be more effective and safer than the western medicine that contain antihistamine ingredient in treating participants with chronic spontaneous urticaria. However, due to the unclear risk of methodological quality, small sample size and some inevitable limitations, the findings should be interpreted with caution. Further studies with large-scale, better and more rigorously designed are warranted to confirm these findings.

Appendix A. Supplementary data

Supplementary data related to this article can be found at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jams.2018.08.209.

Authors’ contributions

Libing Zhu and Yunjin Kim did substantial contributions to the design of this review, study selection, data extraction, analysis, and interpretation of data. Besides, Libing Zhu and Yunjin Kim drafted and revised this manuscript. Also, Zongbao Yang did substantial contributions to the conception of this review and they participated in writing this manuscript. All authors read and approved the final version of this manuscript.

Conflicts of interest

No financial conflicts of interest.

Role of funding source

No funding was secured for this study.

Fig 1.

Figure 1.Study flow diagram.
Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies 2018; 11: 343-354https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jams.2018.08.209

Fig 2.

Figure 2.Risk of bias graph.
Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies 2018; 11: 343-354https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jams.2018.08.209

Fig 3.

Figure 3.Risk of bias summary.
Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies 2018; 11: 343-354https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jams.2018.08.209

Fig 4.

Figure 4.Effects of auriculotherapy or auriculotherapy joint treatment for chronic spontaneous urticaria compared with western medicine.
Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies 2018; 11: 343-354https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jams.2018.08.209

Fig 5.

Figure 5.Effects of auriculotherapy compared with western medicine for chronic spontaneous urticaria (different definition of recovery, improve, invalid).
Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies 2018; 11: 343-354https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jams.2018.08.209

Fig 6.

Figure 6.Adverse events of auriculotherapy or auriculotherapy joint treatment for chronic spontaneous urticaria compared with western medicine.
Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies 2018; 11: 343-354https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jams.2018.08.209

Table 1 . Characteristics of included trials..

Study ID [Ref.]SampleGenderAge (yr)Range or Mean ± SDDiagnostic standardDuration of disease (Mean ± SD)InterventionAuricular points Selected
Male (n)Female (n)
Meng 2015[20]T:87C:87T:34C:45T:53C: 42T: 15∼60, 54.2 ± 13.2C: 16∼63, 55.7 ± 14.4WDC: Practice of dermatologyT:13.4 ± 2.1monthsC:10.4 ± 1.7monthsAuricular points injection vs Western medicineTF4
Bai 2009[22]T:32C:30T:10C:12T:22C:18T:23∼72,42.3C:25∼75,44.6CDC: Standards for diagnosis and curative effect of Chinese medical symptomT:6m∼5yearsC:4m∼6yearsAuricular tapping vs Western medicineUrticarial point, HX1, CO14,TG2p, AT4, CO10, CO13
Ni 2010[21]T:45C:45T:20C:21T: 25C:24T:15∼65, 38.32 ± 13.25C:16∼68, 38.32 ± 13.25NRT:2montsh∼6years, 2.65 ± 0.5C:2months∼6years, 2.65 ± 0.5Modified Taohongsiwu Decoction combined with auricular tapping vs Western medicineCO14, Urticarial point, p2, TG2p, CO7, CO18
Cao 2003[17]T:45C:45T:26C:22T:19C:23T:17∼48,32C:8∼50, 28Clinical dermatologyT:7days∼5 monthsC: 10days∼6monthsTaping Liu Shen Wan on the auricular points and acupoints vs Western medicineCO14, CO13, CO12, CO18
Yang 2002[16]T:45C:35T:30C:17T:15C:18T:24∼45C:25∼48NRT:3∼24monthsC:6∼19monthsAuricular tapping combined with western medicine vs western medicineCO14, Urticarial point, CO18, TG2p, AT3
Chen 2000[18]T:32C:28T:12C:10T:20C:18T:15∼64,40C:16∼66,38CDC: Standards for diagnosis and curative effect of Chinese medical symptomT:3months∼30years, 4yearsC:4months∼28years, 3.8yearsAuricular tapping combined with acupuncture vs western medicineSF1.2i, CO14, CO15, TF4, TG2P, CO4,
Cheng 2014[19]T:35C:33NRNR22∼40CDC: Standards for diagnosis and curative effect of Chinese medical symptom? ∼ 1 yearAbdominal acupuncture combined with auricular acupuncture vs Western medicineHX6.7i, TF4,CO14, TG2P
Study IDFrequency and course of treatmentControl InterventionsOutcome Observation TimeOutcome MeasuresAdverse Events per Group (n/n+)Follow upDrop-out (n/n+)
AuriculotherapyControl
Meng 2015[20]T:Bid, 10 times as one courseC:NRWestern medicine (didn't mention the drug name)At the end of treatmentRecovery, improve, and invalid criteria according to standards for diagnosis and curative effect of Chinese medical symptom[23].Adverse events5/8715/87NR0/87
Bai 2009[22]T: Bid, 10 times as one course, totally 2 courseC: 6 weeksWestern medicine: ranitidine 150 mg twice a day, ebastine 10 mg twice a dayAt the end of treatmentRecovery, improve, and invalid criteria according to standards for diagnosis and curative effect of Chinese medical symptom[23].Adverse events0/3216/30 Sleepiness8/30 Constipation7/30 dry mouthNR0/62
Ni 2010[21]T: each acupoint press 30 times, 3∼4 times per day, 7 days as a course, unhealed patients relaxed 5 days and then received the second course treatmentC: 7 days as a course,Hismanal tablet (oral) 10 mg qd, Vitamin C (oral) 0.2 Tid, calcium gluconate 10 ml puls glucose 20 ml intravenous injection qd, calamine lotion external washing TidAt the end of treatmentRecovery, improve, and invalid criteria according to standards for diagnosis and curative effect of Chinese medical symptom[23].NRNRNR0/90
Cao2003[17]T:preussre point 5∼6 times/per day, 6 days as a courseC: tid, 6 days as a courseChlortrimeton 4 mgAt the end of treatmentRecovery: wheals fade, itchy disappear, negative skin scratch test, received 1 or 2 courses auricular tapping, and stop recurring after half a year follow up; Improve: wheals fade, occasional attack, less itchy, receive auricular tapping lesser than 3 courses and stop recurring after 3 months follow up;Invalid: wheals and itching attack occasionally, and positive skin scratch test.Adverse events3/45 Slightly skin itch at the rubberized fabric adhere part5/45 obvious symptoms of sleepiness6months0/90
Yang 2002[16]T:Pressure auricular points 5 times/per day, 10 days as a course, totally 2 coursesC:10 days as a course, totally 2 coursesTerfenadine 60 mg bid, cimetidine 0.2 g tidAt the end of treatmentRecovery: Clinical signs and symptoms disappear, no attack after drug withdrawal more than 30 days; Improve: Clinical signs and symptoms disappear, no attack after drug withdrawal within 30 days; Effective: Clinical signs and symptoms alleviate after treatment; Invalid: Clinical signs and symptoms keep same or worse after 20 days treatment.Adverse events1/45 stomach discomfort1/45 stomach discomfort1 month0/80
Chen 2000[18]T:acupuncture treatment once a day, 6 times as a course, totally 6 courses; pressuring auricular points 4∼5 times per days, 3∼5 minutes every time, 6 days as a courseC: 6 days as a course, totally 6 coursesChlortrimeton 4 mg, Tid (oral), cyproheptadine 2 mg one time every night; Vitamin C 0.2 g, Tid; Vitamin B6 20 mg, Tid,At the end of treatmentRecovery, improve, and invalid criteria according to standards for diagnosis and curative effect of Chinese medical symptom[23].NRNRNR0/60
Cheng 2014[19]T:abdomen acupuncture combined with auricular acupuncture once a day, 4 weeks as a courseC: 4 weeks as a courseOral cetirizine 10 mg before 22:00At the end of treatmentRecovery, improve, and invalid criteria according to standards for diagnosis and curative effect of Chinese medical symptom[23].Adverse events0/451/35 stomach discomfortNR0/80

R: number of subjects randomized; A: number of subjects analyzed; T: treatment group; C: control group; Ref: reference; WDC: Western medicine diagnostic criteria; CDC: Chinese medicine diagnostic criteria; NR: not reported..

Recovery: wheals fade, clinical signs disappear, and stop recurring; Improve: 30% wheals fade or recurring time extended after fading, and less itchy; Invalid: wheals and itching have no significant improvement, or wheals fade lesser than 30%[23].


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