We cite many acupuncture studies on this website. We’ve provided this acupuncture research in response to patients and readers who tell us that they don’t know when to seek treatment and would like to understand acupuncture better.
Even today Chinese medicine seems foreign and unfamiliar to many in the West, and this website is an effort to provide context.
So, while we provide data from acupuncture studies, we’d like to be on record that we don’t really trust the data completely ourselves. In fact we don’t really know that the traditional double-blind, placebo control group study model that was developed to test pharmaceutical drugs is a good model for studying the effects of acupuncture.
There are significant hurdles in designing a good acupuncture study.
The strength of Chinese medicine is that it provides a very sophisticated system of differential diagnosis. Therefore one person with knee pain may be treated very differently from another person with knee pain depending on the diagnosis. Western acupuncture studies do not allow for a differential diagnosis to be completed. Can you imagine if you were testing a pharmaceutical drug for Alzheimer’s disease but the study parameters didn’t allow for diagnosis, so you had no idea whether or not any of the patients had Alzheimer’s? Wouldn’t the study be meaningless?
Let’s say we’re studying acupuncture for knee pain. In the study design we’re not allowed to do a differential diagnosis according to the principles of Chinese medicine. Therefore we just make up a bunch of points that we say is effective for knee pain–regardless of the fact that there are many other points that could be chosen if only we had the correct diagnosis.
So in this study design, the diagnosis is completely removed and the treatment plan is totally generic. This is quite different from how acupuncture is practiced in real life, where each patient has a differential diagnosis and individualized treatment plan.
The second hurdle is the use of the placebo. A landmark study was conducted recently that proved that placebo or “sham” acupuncture is more effective than pharmaceutical placebos. That means that even fake acupuncture is more effective than fake pharmaceutical medications.
Clearly there is a physiological effect to stimulating the skin even superficially, even at non-acupuncture points. In fact many of the “sham” techniques that are used in clinical studies are used extensively in real life in Japanese-style acupuncture and other Chinese medical non-needle treatment modalities, such as Gua Sha and Shoni-Shin pediatric acupuncture methods.
It is because of these very serious design flaws that placebo acupuncture is often found to be just as effective as “real” acupuncture (because what they’re studying bears no relationship to acupuncture therapy as it is practiced in the real world). It’s a tribute to the effectiveness of these techniques that both the “sham” and “real” acupuncture methods as tested often reveal superior benefits to conventional therapy.
True blind or double-blind studies of acupuncture may actually be impossible. As long as a patient is able to feel a sensation at the point of contact–whether real or placebo–it cannot be considered a valid blind study.
John Amaro, D.C., Dipl.Ac. (NCCAOM) reports in Acupuncture Today that he was approached recently by a major research institute that had received a large grant to conduct acupuncture research on colitis and diverticulitis. They sought his input by asking ‘what points do you use for this condition?’ Dr. Amaro was outraged at the ignorance of these researchers about Chinese medicine. He said they were totally unaware of the methods of diagnosis in Chinese medicine: tongue diagnosis, pulse diagnosis, system review, and electromeridian imaging through ryodoraku.
We will soon provide a follow-up article on this subject that delves into further design flaws and problems in acupuncture research so please return often to see our new pages.
Return from Acupuncture Studies to Acupuncture-Answers.com Home Page