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Acupuncture: 3,000 Studies & More Research Not Needed

In May, Kristin Wiig returned to Saturday Night Live, this time as a host. In one skit, she played an acupuncturist administering treatment to a first time patient. Her therapy began benignly enough: incense was lit, a needle was inserted, then another. But when a third needle was inserted, that's when everything went horrifyingly wrong.

acupuncturesnl.jpgJust to be clear, this scene, resembling the prom bloodbath from Carrie, won't happen in real life. But not much else will either.

Acupuncturists extol the ancient Chinese technique as a treatment of autism, schizophrenia, depression, epilepsy, erectile dysfunction, and a host of other conditions. In reality, scientific examination has only shown acupuncture to be effective in alleviating certain types of chronic pain as well as postoperative nausea and vomiting, and only marginally so.

But in the journal Anesthesia and Analgesia, Professor David Colquhoun of the University College London and Dr. Steven Novella of Yale University argue that acupuncture is "little or no more than a theatrical placebo."

"The benefits of acupuncture are likely nonexistent, or at best are too small and too transient to be of any clinical significance," they contend.

Chief among the tenets of acupuncture is that disease results from disharmony between the human body and the natural environment. When visiting a certified acupuncturist, he or she may diagnose you by examining the shape, coating, and color of your tongue, the color of your face, and the rhythm of your pulse. Such analysis will supposedly reveal any imbalance in your life energy or "Qi." If that sounds a tad kooky, that's because it probably is. To date, scientists have been unable to uncover (PDF) any evidence that Qi actually exists.


One key way that scientists study acupuncture is by comparing it to a sham treatment. In these trials, certain subjects receive genuine acupuncture, where needles are placed in the practice's idealized anatomical points (called meridians), while control subjects basically just get pricked in random locations. In terms of treating pain, most trials have found that the two versions yield no differences across multiple chronic disorders, such as migraine, tension headache, low back pain, and osteoarthritis of the knee. This prompted the Oxford Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine to offer the saucy conclusion that, "Acupuncture is no better than a toothpick for treating back pain."

To be fair, some meta-analyses have found a statistical difference in pain reduction between sham treatments and genuine ones. However, delving deeper into those analysis, Novella and Colquhoun discovered that the difference in pain levels were so minimal that "patients would barely notice it."

To date, more than 3,000 acupuncture trials have been conducted. But even after such a profusion of research, there are no consistent results in acupuncture's favor. If the best thing that can be said after 3,000 trials is that "more research is required," then perhaps there's nothing conclusively positive to be found?

"It is time to give up," Novella and Colquhoun conclude.

"The best controlled studies show a clear pattern... the outcome does not depend on needle location or even needle insertion. Since these variables... define acupuncture, the only sensible conclusion is that acupuncture does not work."

Source:
David Colquhoun and Steven P. Novella. Acupuncture Is Theatrical Placebo. A & A June 2013 vol. 116 no. 6 1360-1363

(Image: Acupuncture via NBC)