Why Further Research into Acupuncture is Worthwhile

Over at Neurologica Blog, Steven Novella expressed scepticism over acupuncture. I’d like to correct a few errors that Steven had made.

Steven writes “the scientific medical community has still not accepted the practice as a legitimate scientific practice”. Actually there are colleges of medical acupuncturists, i.e. members of the medical community who view acupuncturist as a legitimate treatment option. Contrary to the public perception that doctors rely only on pharmaceutical research to tell that what works, there is considerable experimentation going on. Even with ordinary medicines, patients are taken off drugs which are not effective in their particular instance, and switched to a different medicine. Disclosure: my wife, a doctor – who is regularly surprised at the efficacy of acupuncture for symptomatic relief – has started pursuing more knowledge of this interesting approach. I, however, remain only an interested observer. This blog gets little readership, and any benefits that accrue to acupuncture will translate little if any indirect benefit for my wife’s practice.

Lack of Scientific Theory

While I agree that the theory behind acupuncture is pre-scientific, empirical evidence matters. Scientific knowledge of the mechanism behind how Tylenol works did not arrive until much later. In fact, I would suggest that no one would have investigated Tylenol further if it had no pharmacological effect.

Furthermore, some parts of traditional chinese medicine do have analogues in modern science. Let me back up a little bit. I am of Chinese descent, and being Chinese means that any food we eat is classified as having a “hot” or “cold” effect on the body. For example, melons are “cool” while meat is “hot”. Illnesses are categorized according to whether it is due to presence of too much or too little heat. For instance, arthritis and asthma can be due to too much “yin” (cold).

Is this bunk science? Actually, we know now that diseases such as asthma and arthritis have immunological basis. It may be possible that foods regulate our immune system, just as tapeworms do.

Lack of plausible mechanism

My wife had mentioned in passing to me some material she had seen at a conference where, if I remember correctly, a frog was stimulated on an acupuncture point, and the innervation (under some kind of scan) follows where the meridian runs. I apologize for the non-specificity of what I just said. Take this with a grain of salt. If I see the paper, I’ll link to it from here.

Clinical trials

Acupuncture has received mixed results in clinical trials. Some had shown that it works, others showed it to be no better than sham acupuncture. This is not particularly bad news for acupuncture.

Pain is a rather subjective measure, and it may explain how difficult it is to get clear-cut results. I don’t think this is a problem peculiar to acupuncture. Even multiple pharmacological trials end up with a bag of mixed results at times. People do eventually figure out why a medication didn’t work on a particular group of people. Meanwhile, there are always people who have benefited from the treatment.

Personally, I’m of the opinion that – given acupuncture is not particularly expensive. If it has already worked for large groups of people, surely it is worth a try if someone is not getting relief from their existing treatment.