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Acupuncture Remains Scientifically Unconvincing

JE writes: "I am seeking advice on acupuncture to help with back pain and depression.  I have researched a little on valid health websites and have found some information that acupuncture might work.  From a spiritual perspective is it as dangerous as practices reiki, or is there some gray area?  Also what about seeking out a herbalist who I know is into New Age. I would be seeking the medicinal route, but even the thought of him touching me, makes me nervous.  I think his herbs would not have anything put on them." Contrary to popular opinion (and the websites you visited), there is no scientific evidence proving that acupuncture works. Although thousands of anecdotal reports can be found through the centuries on this ancient practice, when it comes to evidence based science, there is little or no proof that acupuncture heals anything. According to the Oxford-based Cochrane Collaboration, which has a global network of 10,000 health experts and a massive data base of medical research studies and clinical trials on just about every treatment you can think of, a systematic review of all the testing done on acupuncture has found no evidence that this treatment works for anything but some types of pain and nausea - and even these are not considered to be very strong conclusions. Supporters of acupuncture like to argue that the reason acupuncture does so poorly in tests is because there is no acceptable "sham" of the procedure that can be used in blind- and double-blind tests.  The problem is that the ideal "sham" must appear to be exactly like real acupuncture only the needles cannot pierce the skin - a difficult standard to reach. However, Professor Edzard Ernst, who leads the Complementary Medicine Research Group at the University of Exeter and who has had a long history of interest in acupuncture, did indeed develop such a sham that has now been successfully used in trials. Prior to this discovery, Ernst had conducted 10 of his own clinical trials on acupuncture, wrote a book on the subject and currently sits on the editorial board of several acupuncture journals so it's safe to say this scholar is not biased against acupuncture. His needling procedure, which he developed with Jongbae Park, a Korean Ph.D. student in his group, uses a telescopic needle that only appears to penetrate the skin and even causes a minor sensation during its supposed insertion.  Although it took several years to develop and test, when the "sham" was used in trials, patients believed they were receiving real acupuncture, making these tests the highest quality acupuncture trials ever conducted. The results were disappointing for acupuncturists. The tests found no convincing evidence that real acupuncture is more effective than a placebo in the treatment of even the few somewhat positive results found by the Cochrane Collaboration such as the treatment of chronic tension headaches, nausea after chemotherapy, and migraine prevention. During the same time frame, German researchers were also conducting large and very high quality trials with their own "sham. The number of patients in these trials ranged from 200 to 1,000 people. Although the results are still being analyzed, as of 2007, researchers released their initial conclusions from these mega trials which found that acupuncture was no more effective than sham acupuncture in treating the four ailments which were the subject of the tests - migraines, tension headaches, chronic low back pain and knee osteoarthritis. Having said all this, you might want to reconsider spending your money on acupuncture treatments. There is definitely a spiritual aspect to acupuncture that is rarely mentioned. Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine which has as its goal the restoration of harmony to each organ system in the body in order to resolve not only physical but emotional and spiritual imbalances as well. A person needs to be very informed about the acupuncturist who is working on them to be sure they are needling for physical health and not attempting to treat what they perceive to be "spiritual" imbalances. I personally spoke with a former acupuncturist who practiced the Traditional Chinese Medicine form of acupuncture who said the procedure is routinely used to rid the body of bad spirits, much like our rite of exorcism. She even spoke about the special clothing the acupuncturist wears during these procedures to avoid contamination, and how they open a window or door in order to let the spirits out of the room.  In another style of acupuncture, known as Five Element acupuncture, practitioners are trained to use their intuition to read "energy patterns" in their patients.  " . . . (A) Five Element Acupuncturist, while working with a patient, might intuitively detect heaviness around the person's spiritual heart. Since these practitioners are deeply invested in emotional and spiritual well-being, they might decide to needle Stomach 12, an acupuncture point also known as 'Broken Bowl.' This point addresses a spiritual state of being in which joy drains through the cracks, so that a person is unable to contain the experience of pleasure. Addressing this emotional imbalance will allow the patient to absorb more happiness, and hence, begin to heal physical imbalances as well." ( Needless to say, there are numerous dangers inherent in allowing New Age and/or Eastern medicine practitioners to exercise control over your spiritual well-being, either directly or indirectly. As for the herbalist, I would try to find one who is not associated with the New Age. Herbal medicine is one of the few alternatives that shows real promise from a scientific point of view. While the herbs this provider sells are probably not tainted in any way, why invest your money in people who promote New Age practices? Instead, give your hard earned dollars to people whose work is bringing good rather than confusion to the world. See also Acupressure Send your New Age question to