A quick side note before I start talking about acupuncture. I want to say that I did a Postgraduate degree on acupuncture 8 years ago, after finishing my Physical Therapist studies. I never got the hang of it, and I never really understood it, so I never used it with my clients, but during the time of my studies, I inserted needles and people inserted needles onto me.
OK, let´s begin by saying what acupuncture is: Acupuncture is a collection of procedures involving penetration of the skin with needles to stimulate certain points on the body. It is based on the notion that health and well-being relate to the flow of a life force through pathways (meridians) in the human body (1). In its classical form it is a characteristic component of traditional Chinese medicine. There are various schools of acupuncture but the majority support the notion of 12 meridians (there are 12 main rivers in China). Meridians supposedly are associated or connected to one of the mayor organs and there are hundreds of possible acupuncture points along the meridians. Before deciding on the acupuncture points, the acupuncturist must first diagnose the patient by inspection, auscultation, olfaction, palpation and inquiring. (1)
The thing that I always find funny is the way people defend acupuncture. They always say to me ¨it has existed for thousand of years so it has to be true¨, and this makes me believe they don´t know what they just said because right there, in that sentence, is part of the answer of why acupuncture doesn´t really work. First, I´ll start by saying that over 2000 years ago (the first mention of acupuncture was 2,600 BC), we didn´t really know how the human body worked, even now, with all the technology we still can´t explain certain things. So you think 2,000 thousand years ago in a culture that performed no DISSECTIONS, they knew what they were doing or where they were sticking their needles (1,2)? If you believe that, then you have to believe on the principles that a ¨life force¨ called qi flows through bodies along 12 channels or ¨meridians¨, and that illness and pain occur when qi cannot flow freely……….and if that´s the case then acupuncture is the right treatment for you.
Let´s just imagine that qi doen´t really exist, since it has never been proven by science (3), this doesn´t mean acupuncture doesn´t work. Maybe acupuncture works through a theory called ¨gate control theory of pain¨. The theory is based on the idea that the spinal cord contains a neural ¨gate¨ that can open and close to reduce or enhance pain messages passing to the brain. This theory seems more logical and maybe that´s why acupuncture does seem to work, or maybe it´s just all a placebo effect.
So to see if acunpuncture is a real treatment or a ¨trick¨, the scientific community has been doing trials, and a lot of trials have been done.
At the beginning these trials compared acupuncture with no treatment. These studies suffered from bias because as I mentioned in my last post (https://sports-diet-pain.com/2013/10/18/placebo/): patients having any procedure tend to feel better than those who have none. So a lot of positive clinical trials came out in the 1970s, 80s and even 90s. Also a lot of positive clinical trials were coming in from China. But if you compared the clinical trials coming from China from the ones coming in from other countries, the Chinese trials were always positive!! (Most people don´t know that during the Daoguang Emperor (1782-1850) acupuncture was in decline and that it only experienced a revival in 1949 as a direct result of Mao Zedong, who promoted Chines traditional medicine during the Cultural Revolution as a way to boost national identity and deliver cheap healthcare (1,2) .
So in 2003 the World Health Organization did a review and analysis of reports on controlled clinical trials and they said that the benefits of acupuncture were either proven or had been shown in the treatment of 91 conditions!!!! (4). But… they had included all those clinical trials that I have mentioned before that were badly conducted and the ones coming in from China.
Cochrane Collaboration is a global network of experts coordinated via its headquarters in Oxford. They adhere to the principles of evidence-based medicine and what they do, is examine clinical trials and other medical research in order to offer clear conclusions about which treatments are genuinely effective for which conditions. It´s basically the ¨gold standard¨ inside the scientific community. They disregard any clinical trial that is not reliable and only look at those in which their quality is reliable. They published their conclusions and said that there is no significant evidence that acupuncture is an effective treatment for the following conditions: Smoking addiction, cocaine dependence, induction of labour, Bell´s palsy, chronic asthma, stroke rehabilitation, breech presentation, depression, epilepsy, carpal tunnel syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, schizophrenia, rheumatoid, arthritis, insomnia, non-specific back pain, lateral elbow pain, shoulder pain, soft tissue shoulder injury, morning sickness, eggcollection, glaucoma,vascular dementia, period pain, whiplash injury and acute stroke (5). They did however say that it ¨could¨ help in the cases of pelvic and back pain during pregnancy, low back pain, headaches, post-operative nausea and vomiting, neck disorders and bed wetting – the important word here is ´could´.
The problem with clinical trials with acupuncture is how do you create a ¨sham¨ group or control group? With pills it´s easy, one group takes the real pill and the ¨control group¨ takes the fake pill, the patients don´t know what they are taking. After that, you just compare results between one group and the other, to see if the real pill does really have an effect or if it´s just a placebo effect. With acupuncture is quite hard because you HAVE to use needles, if not the patient is going to know the difference. So a doctor by name of Edzar Ernst and Jongbae Park created a telescopic needle- that is, an acupuncture needle that looks as if it penetrates the skin, but which instead retracts into the upper handle part (1). The needle offers some resistance as it is retracted into the upper handle. This meant that it would cause some minor sensation during its apparent insertion, so patients would think they were getting real acupuncture but were actually not.
After this new invention came out, new trials started to be conducted and the results of these trial were not that good for acupuncture (6). It showed that acupuncture is just as good as ¨sham acupuncture¨, meaning its benefits are only derived from its placebo effect. A lot of people will say who cares if it´s a placebo effect or something else, if the patient is deriving benefit from the treatment, why not just go ahead with it. I have my opinion regarding to this, which I stated in my last post. Some agree with it, some disagree with it and that´s perfectly fine, as long as you know the real reason why you are doing acupuncture or getting acupuncture.
My next post will be about pain. Do we really know what pain is? How come people who have arthritis in their knee have no pain and some do have pain? How come people with herniation have pain in their back, and some don´t? Is pain really in the knee, back, arm……… or is it all in the head? If so, then maybe we have to start changing the way we deal with injuries or treat our patients. Until next time enjoy the weekend!
P.S. I have added a video to my last post. I would highly recommend that you take a look at it. Sometimes videos express things more clearly than I do. So far I have posted 2 videos. One in the ¨placebo¨ article and the other one in ¨the myth about fast and slow metabolism¨. Really interesting both of them.
1.Ernst E, Simon S. Trick or Treatment ? Alternative medicine on trial. Transworld Publishers.London,UK.2008.
2. Derbyshire D. Why acupuncture is giving sceptics the needle. The observer 2013.
3. Gorski D. A Trilogy of (Acupuncture) Terror. Science Based medicine 2013.
4.http://www.who.int/en/ . Word Health Organization.2003.
6. Ingraham P. Does acupuncture work for pain? http://saveyourself.ca/articles/acupuncture-for-pain.php 2009.
7. Moffet HH. Sham acupuncture may be as efficacious as true acupuncture: a systematic review of clinical trials. J Altern Complement Med. 2009 Mar;15(3):213-6.
- Meta-Study Suggests Acupuncture No Better Than Placebo (izabael.com)
- Characteristics of Acupuncture Treatment Associated with Outcome: An Individual Patient Meta-Analysis of 17,922 Patients with Chronic Pain in Randomised Controlled Trials (plosone.org)