Monday, August 19, 2013

Does Acupuncture Really Work?

When you think about it critically, there is no such thing as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).  There is only medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t.  The trick is to tell the difference.  Medicine that works has been tested under the strictest possible experimental conditions and proves itself to be more effective than a placebo or no treatment at all.  From the results of such clinical tests, not from relatives, friends or celebrity endorsements comes the determination.  This allows us to make wise and careful spending and treatment decisions.  Even under these conditions, errors are made, decisions overturned and sometimes recalls result.  If strict testing can sometimes be wrong, think of the possibility of misinformation when we take medical advice from TV, magazine ads, the Internet or even trusted friends.  We leave ourselves open to fraud and worse.

Until recently I had heard good reports about research on acupuncture.  Although it’s hard to have a control or placebo group – maybe put the needles in the wrong places to measure results – and hard to have a double blind situation – practitioners not knowing who is getting the real treatment – some testing is possible.

Now I find this editorial by a pharmacologist and a physician describing a review of all the research on acupuncture.  According to them, studies show no significant effect on pain relief or any other of the many benefits attributed to acupuncture.  Other reviews published by the National Institute of Health seem to back this up.  One in 2009 concluded: “Whether needling at acupuncture points, or at any site, reduces pain independently of the psychological impact of the treatment ritual is unclear.” Another in 2010 more generally treats the whole area of CAM, including acupuncture, saying: “The benefit of CAM treatments was mostly evident immediately or shortly after the end of the treatment and then faded with time. Very few studies reported long-term outcomes.”  According to the earlier-mentioned editorial, there have been so many attempts to verify acupuncture without favorable results, except in cases where proponents reported data in only the most favorable light, that it makes little sense to continue research.  

Those authors, however, are no advocates of acupuncture and may be biased toward a negative conclusion.  To account for this I checked other sources.  The Mayo Clinic gives what I would characterize as only a half-hearted endorsement, which you can read by following the link.  So at best the jury is still out; at worst it’s a waste of time and money.  And it seems that this conclusion would generalize to include similar interventions.

Many people will not want to accept this information because it goes against their basic beliefs that old and Chinese equals natural and effective.  They forget that science is not about beliefs; it’s about finding things out.  And medicine is science.

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