Monday, May 02, 2005


An article in yesterday's Observer announced "proof" that acupuncture works or (to quote the ridiculous headline) "It's Official: Acupuncture Really Works" Dear oh dear, where to begin? Well with "It's Official" for a start. Really? Say's who? Who is in a position to declare what's "official" and what isn't. Of course the unquestioning masses who will have read the article, will automatically assume that, indeed, "acupuncture really works". Quackery 1, Reason 0 (and that's without even evaluating the term "really works", which is totally unquantifiable.

The article states that Acupuncture relies on a different language and different tools from Western medicine, which is a neat way of saying that the central theories of the practice (developed during ancient times when, remember, the basic benefits of good hygiene weren't known and when human anatomy and physiology were a complete mystery to mankind) are completely at odds with scientific knowledge and discovery. By the way it's important to note the use of the word "treat" and not the use of the word "cure" throughout.

Apparently "a new study reveals for the first time that it provokes a specific response in the brain, shedding light on how it might affect the body's pain pathways. This helps to explain why both patients and health professionals trained in Western medicine are increasingly turning to this ancient form of Chinese healing". Well, for proof, that's pretty ambiguous stuff - "shed light... might... helps explain... increasingly...". According to the article, scientists working on the study say that patients involved in the trial showed brain activity in a region that "appears to be involved in pain modulation". All these qualifications - a classic example of the Fallacy of the Crucial Experiment. Note, however, that there is no mention of which, if any, groups displayed a universal improvement in their symptoms. Kind of important information being witheld, wouldn't you think?

The next section is what actually "sheds light" on how acupuncture might, ehh, work... "with acupuncture you're treating the whole person - the root of the problems, not just the symptoms. I can spend an hour or more with a patient. In the NHS you never get that time..." Later we're told that "To treat an illness, practitioners take a full view of the patient, asking how their body functions, about their character and even their childhood..." Some of the illnesses being treated include "...depression, migraines, chronic pain, rheumatism, eczema, multiple sclerosis and high blood pressure..."

Five out of seven of these illnesses are well known symptoms of stress, so what's really doing the treating? Stainless steel needles stuck in your arse or the one hour chat about your character and childhood? "Yet a growing number of patients have it simply because they say that acupuncture makes them feel happier and more fulfilled". Hmmm, funny that. Note, by the way, that rheumatism is a catch-all term for pain suffered by the elderly (i.e. potentially stress induced also) and MS, obviously, isn't treated by acupuncture... but the associated depression is.

The rest of the piece cherry picks studies indicating the efficacy of acupuncture. It doesn't, however, mention that many, many more have shown acupuncture to be nothing more than a placebo induced sense of temporary well being. This might sound harmless but, considering the complexity of the human vascular (blood) and nervous systems, some clown who doesn't know what they're doing could cause some real damage skewering people with stainless steel. The human body is not designed to be, and does not like being, punctured. Although, in fairness, complications are probably rare. Still though, you wouldn't like to think that genuinely effective medication was being rejected in favour of acupuncture. If it's complimentary and being practised safely then let people chuck their money away for a sense of well being if they want.

For anyone interested this, detailed, examination of acupuncture (and associated links) should dispel any residual notions of acupunture's genuine effectiveness.
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