Does Acupuncture really work or is it a form of elaborated placebo?

Acupuncture session
Andrew Renaut

What Is Acupuncture and how does it work?

As a key component within traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), acupuncture has become one of the most widely accepted alternative medicine therapies in the western world. It encompasses a vast array of techniques, usually by inserting thin needles into the skin and underlying tissues in order to stimulate specific points on the body. These points, once stimulated, are believed to unblock the flow of qi along meridians (energy pathways) and as a result restore body balance.

What other techniques are used when conducting Acupuncture?

Techniques usually vary depending on the country, with the most common procedures being (Barrett, 2011)

  • Injection of sterile water, vitamins, procaine, morphine, or other homeopathic solutions through the inserted needles.
  • Application of laserbeams (also known as Laserpuncture).
  • Placement of acupuncture needles in the external ear (i.e. Auriculotherapy).
  • Use of manual pressure (also known as Acupressure).
  • Burning of herbs applied to the skin (i.e. Moxibustion).
  • Twisting and warming the needle to increase stimulation.

The procedure itself is generally not painful, however it may cause a tingling sensation in the area where the needle has been applied.

Health benefits and the ongoing debates about acupuncture

According to a wide range of studies noted in Barrett’s (2011) research, the conditions claimed to respond to acupuncture are quite varied:

  • Chronic pain (neck and back pain)
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Injury-related pain (i.e. muscle strains and ligament tears)
  • Muscle and nerve conditions (i.e. deafness and paralysis)
  • Gastrointestinal problems such as ulcers, indigestion, constipation and diarrhoea
  • Cardiovascular conditions including high and low blood pressure
  • Genitourinary problems ranging from irregular menstrual cycle to impotence
  • Behavioural problems related to drug abuse, smoking and overeating.

However, there are currently numerous solicited debates on whether or not acupuncture is effective towards treating the above conditions or just a result of elaborate placebo. One theory suggests that the needles used during the procedure stimulate the body to produce endorphins which have a positive effect on reducing pain. Another theory suggests that pain impulses in the nervous system are blocked from reaching the spinal chord and brain at certain pressure points or so called ‘gates’.

How acupuncture may relieve pain or treat certain health conditions is quite unclear. As a result, this has lead to an extensive study conducted by Colquhoun in 2013, who suggests that there is not enough high quality clinical evidence to support any meaningful efficacy of acupuncture therapy for any indication. On the other hand, a retired family practitioner, Harriet Hall, summed up the significance of acupuncture research in relation to the placebo effect:

“Acupuncture studies have shown that it makes no difference where you put needles. Or whether you use needles or just pretend to use needles (as long as the subject believes you used them)”.

He calls this phenomenon ‘Tooth Fairy science’, whereby the individual measures the amount of money left under the pillow but does not focus on whether the Tooth Fairy is real.  In other words, researchers are focused purely on observations which are a result of poorly designed studies.

So what does this all mean?

While clinical research may not be able to provide adequate evidence that the treatment does or does not work, there is no doubt that acupuncture will continue to exist on the ‘High Streets’ around the world.