Alternative Health and the Problem with Acupuncture
In the modern age in which we live, technology and its various machinations are everywhere, with the implications of this ubiquity being felt most prominently in the field of medicine. What was impossible 20 years ago is now possible such as genetic screening, stem cell therapy, more advanced cancer treatments, laboratory grown organs… the list is nearly endless. Medicine has obviously come a long way and in some ways, it still does have a long way to go, in particular when it comes to dealing with patients as more than a list of symptoms which are then checked off. But despite its failings, the medical industry and its off-shoots are good for all of us in the long run. However, over the last decade or so, there has been a huge rise in alternative healthcare. This term encompasses a wide range of practices from Reiki to homeopathy, from crystal healing to acupuncture. Quite a lot of these are seen by the average person to be the nonsense that they are. The exception however seems to be acupuncture. I have heard and read people describe how with acupuncture, they have been cured of a sore throat, a back injury and everything in-between. People see acupuncture as having some form of legitimacy because it is an “ancient Chinese form of treatment”. It is a drug-free and effectively non-invasive remedy for all kinds of ills so this gives it an air of legitimacy along with making it seem like the ideal method for someone who is averse to taking the usual standard medical route.
The problem with acupuncture is that it has no scientific evidence to support it. None whatsoever. There have been multiple studies carried out into the veracity of the effectiveness of acupuncture and it shows that it does work, but only in the sense that it works as well as a placebo. It works as a placebo and nothing more. One study, which can be found here, investigated the effectiveness of verum acupuncture and sham acupuncture in the treatment of chronic lower back pain. The study involved “340 outpatient practices,including 1162 patients aged 18 to 86 years….with a history of chroniclow back pain for a mean of 8 years”. The study lasted 6 months and it concluded that the “Effectiveness of acupuncture, eitherverum or sham, was almost twice that of conventional therapy”. On first glance, this seems to vindicate acupuncture but it doesn’t. The conclusions that the researchers came to is that there is no difference between “acupuncture, either verum or sham”.
Another study, found here, investigated the effectiveness of acupuncture in reducing nausea in patients undergoing radiotherapy. Acupuncture is quite often recommended for the aforementioned reason because as mentioned, it is a non-invasive and drug-free treatment. The study “evaluated the effectiveness of acupuncture in 215 patients with various types of cancer who got either active acupuncture or a sham treatment that involved an identical looking and feeling needle that retracted into the handle on contact with the skin.” They found that “68 percent of patients who got the acupuncture experienced nausea for an average of 19 days during radiotherapy and 61 percent of the patients who got the sham treatment suffered nausea for an average of 17 days”, a difference of next to nothing, statistically speaking that is. If one wants to read something into it however, one can say that the sham acupuncture was more effective than the “real” acupuncture. The researchers did note something which is of particular relevance when they wrote that the “study may indicate that attitudes and expectations play a major role in the experience of the effect of the treatment.”
Along with the above, it is worth taking note of the fact that the points where the needles are to be inserted, are actually originally based on astrological reasoning, with the number of acupuncture points on the body originally numbering 365, the number of days in the year. These acupuncture points, as expected, have no foundation in science or evidence based medicine. Felix Mann, author of Acupuncture: The Ancient Chinese Art of Healing, the first comprehensive book in English about acupuncture, stated that “the acupuncture points are no more real than the black spots a drunkard sees in front of his eyes”.
It Works Jim, But Not As You Know It
Despite what is written above, acupuncture does work but not in the way that the majority of people think it works. What it all boils down to is the placebo effect. People who want to get better, who are desperate for some sort of relief from whatever illness or symptoms they are suffering from, will feel better. What acupuncture and other alternative healthcare practitioners get right is that they make people feel better via the power of suggestion. When an alternative healthcare practitioner suggests that they have the remedy to a particular illness, the sufferer is simply going to feel better after their initial session; by something as seemingly benign as believing a treatment is going to work, it is going to have a positive outcome of some level quite a lot of the time. Added to this is something I mentioned in my opening paragraph.
Modern medicine has a tendency to treat a patient as nothing more than a list of symptoms which are to be checked off as the examination takes place. After a number of symptoms are checked off, a diagnosis is made and the treatment begins. Modern medicine for the most part sees the patient and the illness as two separate entities when in fact they are not. One thing which the alternative healthcare industry gets right is the amount of time its various practitioners spend with their patients in comparison to normal General Practitioners. In the U.K for example, while an encounter with a doctor lasts on average 8 minutes, the average encounter with an alternative healthcare practitioner lasts in the region of an hour. This is a rather large difference which goes quite a bit of the way to explaining the effectiveness of alternative therapies via the “feel-good factor” the patients receive. All in all, it is the placebo effect and nothing more.
So in that sense, acupuncture does work. It works in that it activates the placebo effect. It works in the same way that an American Heart Association journal found a “relationship between optimism and stroke reduction” and that the level of reduction “is similar to that observed in people who increase fruit and vegetable consumption, one analysis suggests”. This is exactly how acupuncture and the other variations of alternative health work. The problem is that they don’t admit this. Instead, they contend that they are holders of esoteric knowledge which is superior to the knowledge held by the profit driven modern medical industry. By undermining real medicine that really works, they are putting people at risk. This may seem alarmist but rightly so. In my native city of Cork, a number of acupuncture clinics offer treatment for the following:
Hypertension, Angina Pectoris, Arteriosclerosis, Anemia, Allergies, Asthma, Emphysema, Sinusitis, Bronchitis, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Side effects of Chemotherapy and Radiation Treatment, Multiple Sclerosis, Trigeminal Neuralgia, Diabetes, Hip Pain, Back Pain, Knee Pain, Neck Pain, Shoulder Pain, Sciatica Pain, Arthritis, Osteoarthritis, Fertility Problems.
This is completely irresponsible and dangerous. Acupuncture, along with alternative healthcare in general, is either under-regulated or completely unregulated. It may seem that I am picking on an easy target but when something as apparently as benign as acupuncture offers supposed treatments for the above, it takes on a more malignant form. Such practices which involve the suspension of logic and basic scientific reasoning , serve no purpose in a technologically advanced society and deserve to be treated as the 21st century equivalent of snake oil; nothing more and nothing less.