Debunk-Tuesday – The Wonderous Tale of Acupuncture

in science •  7 months ago

Every Tuesday I am going to address one specific myth, urban legend, conspiracy theory or piece of pseudo-science. This time our journey takes us under the skin. Literally. We take a closer look into the beneficial claims of acupuncture.


Spoiled Child

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When I was a kid I used to be “ill” quite often. Of course, I was not ill at all in a traditional way of meaning. I just pretended not feeling so well, because I always despised going to school (ironically, because of that it took me two more years than usually to finish it).
One of the ways to treat my condition was the prescription of rehabilitation measures. This meant, I was sent away for about six weeks to get cured and be a productive member of society again. One of these two goals was achieved. You can guess which.
Besides of meeting there the most cynical psychologist you could possibly imagine, my arrogant ego got buffed as well, as soon as I received the results of the IQ test I had to take upon arrival.
Good ol’ times.

But enough of my weird childhood. We are here to talk science. When I was in the rehabilitation clinic, at some point they used acupuncture in an attempt to cure me. Back then, I had no idea what acupuncture should achieve – and apparently, neither did they.
For those of you who are not familiar with the practice of acupuncture, I just recommend watching the movie Matrix. After Neo gets released from the Matrix and wakes up in the real world, the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar sticks needles into his body to relieve him from pain and relax his never used muscles. But maybe, acupuncture is as much fiction as Matrix.
Let’s take a look on the scientific research and how strong the evidence for its claims are.


One Needle For You, One For Me

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Studies are always nice, but systematic reviews of these are even better. With those you can identify weaknesses of several studies and address them accordingly. Since acupuncture became quite popular over the last years, the available research regarding its benefits increased as well. Problem is, most of the available research which supports beneficial health effects are methodically poor[1].
There were some attempts to increase the quality of conducted research, but due to acupunture's highly invasive nature, this is still quite difficult to accomplish.
Although there is quite a lot of research available, solid evidence supports only two conditions which are effected by acupuncture in a beneficial way: nausea/vomiting[2][3] and headache[4].
But as I already pointed out, there are methodical problems. It is therefore not clear, whether these medical benefits are due to the procedure of acupuncture or merely a placebo effect. The design of the studies which showed supporting evidence for the treatment of the conditions mentioned above cannot control the occurrence of placebo effects – thus makes it difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of a given treatment[5].

To address this issue properly, other studies were conducted to achieve a better understanding of the mechanics involved. However, it appears that the majority of these studies are not able to demonstrate a beneficial therapeutic impact on the health conditions of their patients[6].
In fact, it seems to be quite useless in general. If the treatment with acupuncture is tested against a placebo acupuncture it produces the same effects – neither does it matter where you stick the needles nor that you stick them anywhere at all. Let me get this straight:
You will feel the same impact of acupuncture whether or not you are actually treated with acupuncture – as long as you think you are[7]. This is truly amazing. Imagine a company selling TVs which don’t work, but as long as you think they do you will be able to see movies – at least inside your head. People got admitted to hospitals for less severe hallucinations.

But what about the two conditions which are affected by acupuncture? Well, as I said, it’s not as clear as it seems in either direction. Yes, I’m always biased regarding pseudo-medicine, but I owe it to my intellectual honesty to tell you about contradicting evidence as well. There are indeed some studies which show a beneficial connection between acupuncture treatment after chemotherapy and its side-effects[8]. But researchers are aware of methodological weaknesses, so it can neither be confirmed nor denied, whether there is a clear indication of therapeutic benefits of acupuncture after all.


The World is Grey

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For me, it’s always amazing digging through the research and its results. Usually I start with the idea of “This HAS to be bullshit, right?” – quite often I’m right about it. But sometimes it’s not as black and white as I would have liked it. Sure, I’m still not convinced by the idea of acupuncture being a valid treatment for medical conditions, but there is at least some research which stands against the testing of systematic reviews quite well. Maybe at some point in the future there will be concluding evidence for or against this procedure. We will see, I guess.

However, currently I’m still not recommending using acupuncture with the expectation of beneficial health effects beyond a placebo. Unless, you are suffering from side-effects of a recent chemotherapy, of course. But since most of you guys feel, hopefully, quite well, there is no need to use it as a treatment for your daily pain and struggles of life.
If you feel the urgent need to stick a needle into something – try the bully at your workplace. I’ve heard, this works wonders.


Feel always free to discuss my ideas and share your own thoughts about the things I’m writing about. Nobody is omniscient and if we all walk away a bit smarter than before, we’ll have achieved a lot.
Thanks for reading and stay healthy.
Ego



Make sure, to check out #steemstem for more science related content.

References

[1] A. R. White, J. Filshie, T. M. Cummings. Clinical trials of acupuncture: consensus recommendations for optimal treatment, sham controls and blinding
[2] Ezzo JM, Richardson MA, Vickers A, et al. Acupuncture-point stimulation for chemotherapyinduced nausea or vomiting. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2006;(2) DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD002285. pub2. Art. No.: CD002285.
[3] Lee A, Done ML. Stimulation of the wrist acupuncture point P6 for preventing postoperative
nausea and vomiting. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2004;(3) DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003281.pub2. Art. No.: CD003281.
[4] Melchart D, Linde K, Berman B, et al. Acupuncture for idiopathic headache. Cochrane Database of Syst Rev 2001;(1) DOI: 10.1002/14651858. CD001218. Art. No.: CD001218.
[5] Ernst, Edzard. Acupuncture: What Does the Most Reliable Evidence Tell Us?
[6] Ernst E. Acupunctureda critical analysis. J Intern Med 2006;259:125e137
[7] Gorski, David H. (2014). "Integrative oncology: really the best of both worlds?". Nature Reviews Cancer. 14.
[8] M. Kay Garcia, Jennifer McQuade, Robin Haddad, Sonya Patel, Richard Lee, Peiying Yang, J. Lynn Palmer, and Lorenzo Cohen. Systematic Review of Acupuncture in Cancer Care: A Synthesis of the Evidence. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2013 Mar 1; 31(7): 952–960.


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I have read stuff about pseudomedicines and I must say most defy logical science and such, I will never recommend any of it to anyone. That's an awesome piece of review.

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I agree. There is a saying I heard a while ago: "Medicine is alternative medicine which works.

:)

Intresting review! I like the objectivity despite the fact that I, too, am quite skeptical about 'baseless' alternative medicine.

I guess (for now) it all keeps circling back to the placebo effect. It's a little frustrating due to its wide area of influence, and yet a pretty interesting phenomenon too!

Nice article :)

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It's a little frustrating due to its wide area of influence, and yet a pretty interesting phenomenon too!

I totally get the frustration part :D
Problem is, most people are not even aware of how big its influence can be or have never heard of things like placebo-by-proxy - this makes it hard to argue.

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Well ignorance-In its kindest definition-is usually a problem, but I guess it is part of the whole thing. There's always going to be a mass of 'ignorants' regarding a particular subject, right?