…just as well as not doing acupuncture! Now that’s what I call a medical procedure worth investing large sums of money in and foregoing other clinically proven treatments for. You don’t even need to actually do it for it to magically heal you! Hey, I wonder if we can make that work with chemotherapy.
This new study which has the skeptical (and not-so-skeptical) blogosphere abuzz randomly split 638 adults suffering from chronic back pain into four groups. All of these groups were given the usual care for back pain, but one of them also got a specific, personalised regimen of acupuncture, as prescribed by a practised acupuncturist; one group got a standard acupuncture treatment, in keeping with the traditions of Chinese medicine but not tailored to them individually; one group got prodded about with toothpicks as if there was some acupuncture going on, but nothing really happened; and the other avoided being jabbed by anything pointy at all.
The results showed that the first three groups – those who underwent either “real” or “simulated” acupuncture treatments – experienced significant and beneficial effects, compared with the fourth group. However, among those three groups, no one treatment regimen was shown to be any more effective than any other. They all seemed to work, but they all seemed to work equally well.
If you have at least a basic understanding of science, it should be clear that this is not a victory for the alternative medicine crowd. Actual science-based medicine has known for years that the placebo effect can be a powerful factor in treating symptoms, and in particular with pain relief. If someone takes a sugar pill which they think contains something that will make them feel better, then they will tend to feel better. It’s a bizarre aspect of human psychology and physiology, and not well understood, but there’s plenty of data suggesting that it does happen, in numerous unusual ways.
So modern medicine is left profoundly un-rocked by the idea that, if you bring someone to a shiny clinic and lie them down and have someone with a lab coat and a friendly professional demeanour explain how they’re going to unlock their flow of qi by poking them with some needles, something might actually happen to them. The thing is, modern medicine isn’t happy stopping there.
Fans of acupuncture might want to see results like this as proof that the ancient Chinese really knew their stuff when it came to mystical, invisible energy fields – because look, people are saying their backs hurt less after the treatment. But just because I’ve completely recovered from a bad cold that plagued me for most of last week, doesn’t mean I should start praising the curative effects of that bag of Gummi Bears I scoffed when I was at my worst. We have scientific tests so that we can find out whether our first guess about what’s going on is right, or whether it’s actually misleading. Maybe I really bought an undiscovered cure-all from the corner shop for 50p; or maybe something else (for example, my immune system + time) is actually what did the trick. And maybe we can find out which by doing some science.
Similarly, acupuncture purports to have an actual physiological effect on the human body by manipulating the flow of qi energy – and when patients were treated with it, their pain was indeed reduced. But as with my Gummi Bears, this isn’t enough to support an actual link. If it had turned out that you really do need to poke people in exactly the right way, as acupuncture experts suggest, for anything noticeable to happen, then their methods might start to seem useful and medically relevant. But if you can ignore all their principles of qi and whatnot, and just prod people with toothpicks a bit, and get virtually identical results, you really have to reconsider the unquestionable value of this Eastern wisdom. If I’d had Skittles instead of Gummi Bears, I’d probably have stopped dripping snot just as fast.
This trial demonstrates yet again that the only noticeable effect ever seen to result from any form of acupuncture is no greater than that of a placebo. It’s entirely consistent with the whole foundation of the practice being a myth.
…Dammit, you guys.
Though, interestingly, when I was trying to find the link to the Metro article my housemate first sent me about this story last week, the first result on Google for “metro news acupuncture” pointed to this brief story from January, which showed a much greater critical awareness, and explained the placebo effect very competently. Maybe there’s hope.
(This will do as a placeholder Skeptictionary entry on acupuncture for now, until I come up with something more general.)