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Acupuncture: The Point


Thursday, January 29th, 2009 Acupuncture: The Point

A great deal has been heard in recent weeks with regards to how effective acupuncture is. It has been argued that the benefits of acupuncture are merely all in the mind. With that in mind it will be useful to evaluate some of the evidence put forward, we will assess whether fake acupuncture is as effective as the real thing, more specifically in the relief of headaches. Equally are the effects purely psychological?

According to research carried out by Dr Simon Singh and reported in the Mail (27 01 09) on acupuncture, it became apparent that the sticking of needles into patients was not as effective ads claimed. Moreover, it has been suggested that the philosophy of Chinese acupuncture is nothing more than mumbo-jumbo.

It has been established that the most recent clinical trials have largely been based on acupuncturists treating patients with headaches.

Hitherto, Chinese philosophy explanations with regards to headaches are that such complaints are due to imbalances in the flow of Ch’i (a supposed life energy) within meridians (channels that supposedly run through our bodies). Inserting needles at the right points along the meridians is meant to affect the Ch’i and cure the patient.

Two types of acupuncture were assessed, one fake the other real. Essentially this meant that some of the patients had needles inserted at key points whilst the other set had needles placed almost anywhere.

What was intriguing was the fact that those patients receiving real acupuncture showed significant levels of improvement, but the patients receiving fake acupuncture typically showed similar levels of improvement, according to Singh.

Crucially this means that the merits of acupuncture have absolutely nothing to do with meridians of Ch’i, but are merely associated with sticking needles randomly.

Furthermore it has been more than suggested that acupuncture has a powerful placebo effect on the said patients.

Singh argue that needling has some kind of beneficial health impact, perhaps by confusing the body’s ability to sense pain. But the more likely explanation is that acupuncture has a powerful placebo effect on patients.

This means that patients are largely benefiting indirectly from the idea of receiving an exotic therapy, rather than benefiting from any actual effect of the needles.

We know that patients who feel cared for, who have an expectation of recovery and who have faith in the treatment, will often show signs of recovery even if the treatment is in reality useless.

The placebo effect is a wonderful phenomenon. Hence, many argue that we should have more acupuncturists on the High Street and in the NHS, even if the whole ritual is a charade. However, I believe the increased use of pure placebos would be a move back to the Dark Ages of medicine.

Like everything in life, there are both good points and bad. For acupunture the same can be said. However, on the downside there is evidence to suggest that placebo treatments may be a distraction and delay patients from seeking proper advice. Nevertheless, the merits of acupuncture are that the placebo effect might be significant in helping with some conditions, such as pain or nausea.

What is clear is that this type of treatment does not come for free. So beggar the question, how much do we want patients ripped off? As argued by Singh, is it fair to charge £50.00 per session when a patient has been deliberately misled. Using Singh’s example a Google search reveals an acupuncture clinic that offers to treat high blood pressure, kidney disorders, liver disease, depression, respiratory conditions, rheumatism, diabetes, as well as circulatory, gastrointestinal, heart, menopausal and urinary problems, and much more.

Arguably, the bigger the deception then the bigger the fall in terms of deceiving these patients. It has to be questioned do we want a culture based around deceit?

In conclusion, it is essentially pointless to waste money, running the risk of harm by investing your hopes in a treatment that is based on a misguided philosophy and which is probably nothing more than a placebo, according to Singh.

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