Curiosity can lead to things that go up against one’s beliefs, in this case acupuncture v. scientific proof in medicine.  I’m a biologist, have taught pre-med biology, and grew up on a ranch, so I have a very good understanding of the anatomy of mammals (humans included) – and also of the scientific method:  observe, put together a hypothesis, test with controls, and analyze the results to see if significant. But I had heard that acupuncture, an alternative medicine, has actually been shown scientifically (article 1; article 2) to help with pain management, though, anatomically, no one knows exactly why.  Is it a placebo effect, does it stimulates blood flow, or is it caused by something else??  So many people do it, but the science still seemed unsure.

At least that was my understanding of the state of the art when I went into this.  Thinking of my next adventure as a ‘hmmm, I’m curious’ test case, and as something that may even help ease the pain of my inflammatory arthritis, or at least the neck pain I occasionally get, I gathered up my Groupon yesterday and went.

But once there, and finding out how seriously my acupuncturist took this method as a way to treat major illnesses, not just provide pain management, I realized that my openness to something outside of science was really going to be put to the test.  My session started with the woman-who-was-about-to-stick-needles-in-me asking about my general ailments, but then she immediately criticized the fact that I was on medicines for a form of arthritis similar to rheumatoid (RA).  She noted that with my being a vegetarian, “obviously I had a iron 3+ deficiency” and that was what was causing my joint pain.  This was sentence 5 in our conversation.

Note:  I have been a strict vegetarian for 20+ years.  I have had arthritis for 8 years.  And, not that this is enough proof, but my mother has had severe arthritis for 40 years, and is not a vegetarian by any means.  I wonder what the acupuncturist would have told my mother?

Once the acupuncturist said that, I found my mental door slammed shut and I kept thinking of acupuncture as group of people talking themselves into believing they could control illnesses.  I told the woman that the medicine I’ve been on for eight years has transformed my life, keeping me mobile and mostly pain free (and believe me, I have been off of it here and there, and it sucks big time), and she then stepped back and noted she would never ask me to go off my medicine without a doctor’s approval, and even then it would be weaning off:  as I undergo a series of acupuncture sessions I would feel less and less pain.

Before this, I had no idea that acupuncture could be considered an actual cure for ailments.  Obviously I hadn’t done any research and had gone in with my own preconceptions, but still, I was being told that needles and eating meat would cure me.  I’m sorry, I can’t trust that without a scientific study and then a physical examination to back it up.  However, I was curious to see what happened this visit in terms of pain management, and to understand the whole process.

However, it didn’t help that once I was settled in, with the needles inserted painlessly and a heat lamp on me (which felt very nice), that I overheard my acupuncturist answer another patient’s question.  “well yes, it’ll help with that, and with arthritis, cancer, anything.  Acupuncture helps with everything.”

Yeah, right.

I guess the question left unanswered is what was meant by “help”?  Was she talking about curing disease, like she was for me?  Or about assisting other medical methods, especially in pain management? According to my acupuncturist, and a number of articles I skimmed this morning (and Wikipedia), acupuncture helps stimulate and move amorphous, invisible energies/life-forces (qi) that circulate through the body.  An entire medicine has been built on trial and error over centuries to move these energies, but how does it work?  How does one needle in one particular place affect a specific energy that could combat cancer?  Has the placement of that particular needle been tested against, say having a needle in a slightly different place?  (Apparently, with no differences shown). Critically important, has the placebo effect, or the effect of a lovely heat lamp, been ruled out?

Having done a little bit of reading now, it seems that so many research studies (as outlined in Wikipedia and Google Scholar) show that the effectiveness of acupuncture is very iffy.  Here’s one article showing that studies with controls still need to be done. The placebo effect is very likely.

Medical science of course does not know all – our human bodies are still ‘grayish’ boxes, but, unlike what my acupuncturist believed, there is physically no way that acupuncture could have been scientifically shown to work on all diseases.  Research still needs to be done, and anyway, no matter what, one method cannot solve all illnesses (and historically hasn’t if you think about it).

So I came out of the session frustrated, and with more questions than I went in with.  Interestingly, I went in with neck pain, but came out with none.  I also came out with some serious exhaustion, which one website notes is a common side effect.  But which was the culprit for the fatigue – acupuncture, or the fact that a car alarm had gone off in the middle of the previous night causing me to lose hours of sleep?

I can see acupuncture helping pain management due to the stimulation of nerves.  But for other types of treatment and the curing of illnesses?   I don’t trust any proposed medicine – herbal or physical – as a cure, not just an experiment, unless I see multiple scientific studies showing it is effective.  (It always takes more than one study – that’s part of the scientific method). Prove it, please.  People are often too ill, busy, and financially strapped to just take it on faith.


P.S.  I am looking forward to trying to find this article and reading it:

Exploring acupuncturists’ perceptions of treating patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

4 thoughts on “Acupuncture

  1. wow. send this one to the Washingtonian! Brilliant, and probably speaks for many. I’ll bet your wit could even publish in England. My question is, why would big and thrifty companies like Kaiser and Blue Choice pay for Acupuncture, if it had poor research backing?

    • Maybe because it hasn’t been ruled out yet, and because some small, specific studies have shown some benefits? And/or because it’s inexpensive compared to surgery, so why not take a shot at it first? Just some potential reasons, but I’m sure there’s already been a discussion out there somewhere on that. The beauty of the internet – if one has time.

  2. Pingback: The Year 2014 in Adventures | adventuresacross2014

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