Does Acupuncture Work?
Origins of Acupuncture
When we Westerners imagine acupuncture, we typically imagine a person stuck full of needles (see figure 1). We are unfamiliar with this practice because we are a culture that is grounded in hard science and conventional medicine. We don't typically stray too far from that path, as doing so might lead to more pain and further complications.
Acupuncture is a prime example of an alternative medicine practice that strays from the path quite a bit. More and more people are turning to this practice because of the countless positive testimonials that have spread by word of mouth. This ancient form of medicine, once used exclusively by the King, has more or less settled into its niche in our society as a mystical alternative approach to healing.
Acupuncture has evolved through the centuries to become one of the more popular forms of alternative medicine that's trending worldwide. The precise start date to acupuncture is still highly debatable; therefore, still unknown. Discovered within ancient manuscripts and illustrations, acupuncture was believed to have been practiced as early as 1600 BC. Illustrations show the human figure dotted with spots known as "meridian points" scattered throughout the body. "Qi," or natural energy, flows within our bodies, and are ever-flowing in our bodies, like blood is to veins.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) believes that the body has 20 meridian points through which qi flows. It's often believed that illness and disease are associated with the imbalance of qi. Acupuncture corrects those imbalances by inserting needles at the meridian points, thereby stimulating those areas to either increase or decrease the flow of qi. In this way, the body's overall qi is regulated.
How likely would you go to an acupuncturist for treatment for say, a sprained wrist?
Basic Concept of Qi in Acupuncture
TCM describes qi to be an ever-flowing breath of natural energy that flows in the body much like blood would flow through our veins. It is widely believed in the past that qi is not only an energy that sustains life but energy that links all things in the surrounding environment to it. By understanding the inner and surrounding qi, one can incorporate the two together and create a symbiotic bond; much like a fish swimming in an ever flowing stream. As qi flows and is used in the body, it's channeled through the various meridian points. As a direct influence on our bodies, we often do things that affect our qi like: eating incorrectly, not exercising, injuring ourselves, stress, bad environment, and a plethora of other things. It is possible to injure a meridian point and doing so can possibly block qi flow which can lead to various problems.
An example of blocked or disrupted qi would be a sprained muscle. There are various causes for a sprained muscle such as an sudden strenuous motion or a fall. A sprained muscle, according to qi laws, will stagnate in the area and will cause the muscles in the area to contract excessively and that result with the immediate area to be tender and painful. If qi flow is not restored, normalcy won't return and the pain will persist and cause many other problems.
If one were to imagine the body's entire system of blood vessels and nerves, it's appropriate to associate the system to roadways/highways of our environment. Meridian points are like the exits we take on said highways. Traffic congestion occurs when there are problems like accidents and just overall overabundance of cars on the road. Like those exits on the highway, meridian points can be clogged by an overflow of qi.
There are a total of 12 standard meridian points that are located in the hand and feet that affect immediate internal organs from the spleen, liver, heart, to the stomach. There are 8 more points that are incorporated later into 12 that are described as being areas that are storage areas that hold excess qi. These said areas can be tapped in to release stored qi to help regulate the flow of qi where needed.
There are a more points besides the 12 standard points. However, the various other points are located within the 12 points. There are a total of 500+ meridian points and a lot are still interpreted differently by each acupuncturist.
12 Standard Meridian Points and Responsible Organ
Yin or Yang
Triple Burner (Metabolism Mechanism)
Elemental Association Yin and Yang
Following TCM, acupuncture has been practiced for thousands of years and those who practice it still follow acupuncture by the book. This requires the one administering acupuncture to follow the elemental code as well as be knowledgeable of the yin and yang principles. Each meridian point has an elemental association as well as light and dark significance (yin and yang).
Yin and Yang Symbology
To understand how the importance of yin and yang is to acupuncture, one must understand the basic concept.
- First and foremost yin and yang are opposing qualities.
- They never exist in isolation. They are interdependent on each other. There can never be total yin or total yang. Light is always met with dark and vice versa. Even though there are extremes of yin or yang, there is always a seed of yin or yang depending on what is the extreme.
- There is never a 50/50 balance; although, theoretically yin and yang is thought to be equal, they are always in a dynamic relationship.
- They are mutually consumptive of each other. For example, an extreme of yin (cold/wet) will extinguish yang (fire). An extreme of yang (fire) will burn up all of yin (water).
Like yin and yang, elemental symbolisms also play a very large role in acupuncture. To understand the elemental aspect of acupuncture, there is a model that best sums up the basic understanding of the elemental aspect to acupuncture. There is a model called the "Sheng" model and that refers to the Mother Child Model. In this model it's best to imagine that the root element, the mother with how much growth its allowed, will have certain types of results that will affect the resulting child element.
If earth is weakened by a poor diet and overworked, it'll need nourishment from fire to balance or correct this issue. With earth being weakened, it's also important to note that earth can produce metal (child element) and that can be weakened due to the mother element being affected.
The elemental aspect follows hand in hand with yin and yang. It's the fundamental basis of how acupuncturists diagnose problems. Certain ailments stem from an imbalance of yin and yang as well as elemental deficiencies, these will then be solved by acupuncture.
What Can Acupuncture Treat
Majority of most cases brought to an acupuncturist is almost always pain related. For example; arthritis, back, neck, knee and shoulder pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and sciatica.
Acupuncture also treats (by no means a true complete list):
Eye, Ear, Nose, Throat Disorders
- Sore Throat
- Hay Fever
- Nerve Deafness
- Ringing in the Ears
- Poor Eyesight
- High Blood Pressure
- Angina Pectoris
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Spastic colon
- Food Allergies
- Abdominal Bloating
Gynecological / Genitourinary Disorders
- Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)
- Irregular, Heavy or Painful Menstruation
- Chronic Bladder Infection
- Complications in Pregnancy
- Morning Sickness
- Kidney Stones
- Infertility in Men and Women
- Sexual Dysfunction
- Chronic Fatigue
- HIV and AIDS
- Epstein Barr Virus
- Smoking Cessation
Emotional and Psychological Disorders
Musculoskeletal and Neurological Disorders
- Back Pain
- Stiff Neck
- Bell's Palsy
- Trigeminal Neuralgia
- Headaches and Migraines
- Cerebral Palsy
- Muscle Spasms
- Colds and Flus
Acupuncture Also Treats
- Chemotherapy/Radiation Side Effects
- Dermatological Disorders
- Weight Control
With all that's been presented, acupuncture seems to be quite a praising; yet, mystical approach to healing. Because medicine is all about validating hard science and hard facts, it leaves acupuncture to be debated and a debate that may never end. Acupuncture is still wildly disliked by many mainly because of its fundamental basis on the ever notorious qi aspect. Acupuncture is based solely around qi and whatever that stems from that is thought to be pure conjecture. Many call acupuncture a form of hocus pocus because many still can not believe such a thing as natural energy "qi".
"One of the major problems facing medical acupuncture is the preconceived notions both the public and healthcare professionals have of it," he said. "The perception is that acupuncture is still all about chi and meridians."
- Dr. Adrian White, Editor-in-Chief of the scientific journal Acupuncture in Medicine
Various studies published in articles and medical journals calls acupuncture out categorizing it as fake medicine. The primary premise these analysts and medical scientists circle around the qi aspect as stated before saying that it is a very hard aspect to grasp when hard science is prevalent. Traditional examples of explanations and treatment plans were just too far fetched and too archaic for the scientific and medical community to grasp.
The Placebo Effect
Various medical scientists and scientific researchers note that a majority of the studies that are done to disprove acupuncture all center around the Placebo Effect. This is by far the best way to disprove acupuncture as it's the simplest way to test if the alternative medicine actually works. Like hard science, trial and error to disprove certain theories is the scientific community's specialty. The placebo effect example, we can focus on, centers around administering acupuncture on a group of people for certain ailments such as arthritis and side effects caused by chemotherapy.
For the arthritis group:
"The study, from the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, tracked 455 patients with painful knee arthritis who received either traditional Chinese acupuncture or a sham treatment. A control group of patients was put on a waiting list for acupuncture treatment. Patients were told only that the study was comparing a traditional versus nontraditional form of acupuncture."
- Tara Parker-Pope, New York Times
From the group being treated for chemotherapy side effects:
"Researchers followed a group of 47 women being treated with aromatase inhibitors, a breast cancer medication that can cause menopause-like side effects (hot flashes, night sweats) as well as joint and muscle pain. Twenty-three of the women received eight weeks of acupuncture; the rest received eight weeks of something called "sham acupuncture," where needles are placed on the skin somewhat randomly — not at traditional acupuncture points — and then not actually inserted."
- Lauren F. Friedman, SFGate
In both these studies, set out to disprove acupuncture, both set out to trick the person receiving the treatment. In the chemotherapy group, women who were experiencing side effects claimed to have been cured from their ailments. Those who were in the other group also reported that their pain reduction has dropped on the pain scale of 1 to 7.
Acupuncture as a Pseudoscience?
If many scientific journals dismiss acupuncture as a pseudoscience, where there is some belief of the science working; however, it does not conform to hard scientific methods, then why is there still such a large concentrated group of people who still clammer to experience this alternate form of medicine?
The answer lies within pain and how pain is received. The results presented in the two cases does not mean that acupuncture doesn't work; but, it does suggest that the benefits of both real and fake acupuncture may have something to do with how the body receives and processes pain. There is an old Chinese proverb that states: "The more bitter the medicine, the better it's going to work." That holds true in this situation as the body feels pain, the more pain, the better the treatment. However, that is all solely based on the person receiving the needles.
Western hard medicine itself is still very ambiguous, having been a caretaker for a sick mother who have gone through ovarian cancer (who is in remission, thank goodness), medicine affects everyone differently and the diagnosis and prognosis for everyone is also different. Acupuncture is no different, it affects everyone differently and everyone's experience with acupuncture is dynamic. Many people go in knowing that acupuncture is pseudoscience; however, at a stage where the pain can no longer be tolerable, anyone is willing to try anything.
Don't Judge a Book by its Cover
Acupuncture has not been well received by many; however, all the research and scientific studies done to disprove acupuncture; a new perspective is gained.
"In the past it was easy for doctors and scientists to dismiss acupuncture as 'highly implausible' when its workings were couched in talk of chi and meridians. But it becomes very plausible when explained in terms of neurophysiology,"
-Dr. Adrian White, Editor-in-Chief of the scientific journal Acupuncture in Medicine
It somewhat validates acupuncture for those who don't believe in it. In medicine it's important to believe in your treatment because part of the healing is to believe your treatment is actually helping you get better. A person who doesn't believe will come out with nothing, and in this pseudoscience it's important to believe.
Acupuncture could very well be debunked for some; but, in the end it's still a very real experience many people go through for treatment. We use a placebo in studies to further research and in acupuncture, it's used to trick the mind. If it does no harm to those who get treatment, it's almost unethical to stop one from going to get help.
"Acupuncture does appear to have some very small benefit above and beyond placebo acupuncture or sham acupuncture. But the effects really are pretty small, and the majority of the effect is a placebo effect."
"In the past, people have viewed placebos as negative things, (but) they could have some real benefits for patients," Avins says. "I would be hard-pressed to tell a patient who says they're benefiting from something that's 'just a placebo' to stop using it."