Hello Adam! Sorry that this is a little overdue, but here’s what I know about acupuncture – including a bunch of links if you want to click about a bit.
Get a needle, twiddle it into your skin and pain gets cured. True or false? Because that’s essentially the argument being made with acupuncture.
Thing is, there’s no scientific case that supports the existence of ‘energy channels’ or ‘qi‘ that are being tapped into by these twiddlys. In fact, I’d refer you to one of my favourite comedy routines by Billy Connelly in regards to anyone coming up to you and talking about ‘certain energies’.
So, what’s left? Some of the acupuncture sites are near peripheral nerves, sure. There’s a research paper by Cho, Won and Fallon (2001), which tells us that you can see how the stimulation of these sites does change activity in brain regions related to the targets of treatments (“Cho showed that electro-acupuncture stimulation can affect the diencephalic area of the brain, a region that promotes the body’s own healing responses” – Ulett, 2003).
Problem is, getting controlled studies of acupuncture is difficult – if you do a Google Books search for the term, you’ll find hundreds of papers that look very convincing but are not from peer-reviewed journals or are flawed studies… more recently I had a dialogue with a person who tried throwing bunches of studies at me that were either from multinational companies that were producing their own favorable studies. When they started citing papers in favour of their theories that were dated from the early 1900s, it got rather silly and they stomped off in a huff.
So, I ended up checking some of the following sites – The Skeptic’s Dictionary, Health Information, Natural Database, CSICOP, Quackwatch, Bad Science, Science Based Medicine, and used my University’s search engine for electronic journals (which produces copies of many of the papers in the links I’ve posted).
A couple of studies have shown that acupuncture is no better than placebo or massage therapy (Irnich et al., 2001; Kerr, Walsh, & Baxter, 2003). Some results contradict themselves too – Ter Riet, Kleijnen and Knipschild, 1990. When I checked out a medical policy site from the US, it noted how “a randomized study by White and colleagues of patients with chronic neck pain reported that acupuncture provided no additional benefit compared to placebo acupuncture (While, 2004).”
So, what’s the issue? Well, it could be argued that your painkilling system can be influenced externally – there might be better or alternative ways (no pun intended…) of doing this (Ulett, 2003). Lots of placebos that work seem to operate by kicking your endorphins into gear, for example. There was even a report from the British Medical Association that says that in some circumstances, pain and nausea can be reduced via acupuncture (British Medical Association, 2000) – which was promptly criticised. But is that good enough? Is this really universally applicable and worth spending money on as a treatment for a dance injury, especially if you need to be in best health as a dancer?
The bugger about it all, as I said last time I saw you? It’s a sod trying to control for the placebo effect if you try double-blind testing (White, et. al, 2003). I personally couldn’t figure out how to pretend to twiddle a needle into someone and trick them into thinking and feeling that it’s happening – but apparently the British Medical Journal has reported this month how someone has created ‘dummy effects’ and it having an effect on IVF chances. You might note that there’s some responses to the study as well – but even more condemning is the site www.sciencebasedmedicine.com where David Gorski points out that as a meta-analysis, “this study does not provide particularly compelling evidence to support such a conclusion”.
Bleah. I note that the Skeptic’s Dictionary warns of possible harm ‘to the fetus in early pregnancy since it may stimulate the production of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and oxytocin, which affect labor.’
Uh, not that you in particular have to worry about that, being a guy and all, but it certainly is something to think about! More relevant and more recently – the Australian national 100m titleholder Josh Ross missed three weeks of track training after a bad reaction to acupuncture too. Serious case of ‘buyer beware’, essentially.
As for concern about such practices in academia, this article by David Gorski (again on Science Based Medicine) might have a few answers as to why we discussed how a certain young doctor might be keen on it… if that’s forty-four colleges in the USA, I shouldn’t think Australian institutions would be that much different.
Exactly what sort of pain acupuncture can help out with, who responds the best, what exactly has to be done to get it to work (clockwise or anticlockwise twiddle? Just how many different methods are there? I should find that out next)… it’s still under debate. It does allow for more research into how does the external stimulation influence internal painkilling systems, so I’m all in favour of it continuing to be checked out properly.
Which is probably why this guy, Dr Michael Shermer, allows himself to get twiddled off. Enjoy the show!
References Without Featured Links:
Kerr DP, Walsh DM & Baxter D. Acupuncture in the management of chronic low back pain: a blinded randomized controlled trial. Clinical Journal of Pain, 2003, 19, 6, p364-370.
White P, Lewith G, Prescott P, et al. Acupuncture versus placebo for the treatment of chronic mechanical neck pain. Ann Intern Med. 2004; 141(12):911-9.