Opinions about acupuncture

Acupuncture is the source of a great deal of controversy in medical circles, with many people in support of the practice and the benefits it can bring to patients, while others argue that it is little more than a placebo procedure which has no real physiological effects. In this article we look at why there are such varied opinions regarding acupuncture.

Differing opinions on how acupuncture works

One of the main sources of contention about acupuncture is the fact that we are still unclear as to how the treatment works. Moreover the traditional explanations of acupuncture, based on early Chinese beliefs, are not compatible with our modern understanding of physiology.

The ancient Chinese developed acupuncture as part of an overarching philosophy that stated that good health was a consequence of the uninterrupted flow of an energy called Qi, which passed through the body by way of its own vessels, also known as meridians. Acupuncture is in essence a method which aims to clear obstructions in the flow of Qi which, according to this philosophy, are responsible for disease and poor health.

Unfortunately modern research has found no evidence to support the existence of Qi or its meridians, moreover modern interpretations of acupuncture have yet to find solid support in scientific research. These suggest that acupuncture works by stimulating the release of a class of compounds called neurotransmitters, signalling chemicals that can mediate pain and promote recovery. It has also been suggested that acupuncture can also improve circulation in target areas, and also relax muscles in spasm. These theories have some backing from the evidence to hand, however they don’t correspond to an important aspect of acupunctural practice, namely the system of acupoints targeted by treatment.

These acupoints were originally plotted by the ancient Chinese as key parts of the meridian system, and unfortunately research into these locations has not been able to find a correlation between acupoints and physiological structures like nerve networks or the like. So while there is some evidence to support physiological mechanisms by which acupuncture works, the connection between traditional acupuncture and anatomy is becoming increasingly tenuous.

Disagreements about these various theories and principles behind acupuncture have fuelled much of the controversy surrounding acupuncture. However a general consensus is that much more research needs to be conducted to determine the exact mechanisms by which acupuncture works.

Differing opinions on the effectiveness of acupuncture

While there is plenty of evidence to support acupuncture’s safety, the question of its effectiveness is one that remains open to a great deal of debate. This is due to a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that there is a lack of high-quality scientific research into acupuncture’s efficacy.

While many studies have shown effectiveness in a number of applications, other have reported contradictory findings, suggesting that much more research needs to be done before any concrete conclusions can be reached. Unfortunately one of the reasons why reaching these conclusions is so difficult is that acupuncture’s effectiveness can be difficult to assess. All scientific investigations require a control group, who are essentially a number of subjects who are given a sham treatment. While this is easier to conduct with pills and other therapies, it can be substantially more difficult to perform sham acupuncture which successfully tricks the recipient into thinking they are receiving the genuine treatment.

Most medical studies are performed using a ‘double blind’, which means that both the practitioner and the recipient of a treatment are unaware of whether the treatment being tested is a control or not. This is used because sometimes cues from the practitioner can influence a patient’s perception of the treatment, and therefore the placebo effect. This is nigh on impossible to do with acupuncture as a practitioner will be aware of whether or not the needles are penetrating the skin and achieving what they need to.

These studies are further complicated by the fact that there can be variation between different acupunctural practices, which in turn means that it is difficult for a study to address the effectiveness of different styles of acupuncture.

More recently the problem of study design in acupuncture has been addressed, and the quality of research into acupuncture is constantly improving. This means that we have a better understanding than ever before of where acupuncture is useful and where it is not. Unfortunately it will still be some time before enough information is available to draw clear conclusions.

Ultimately the onus is on you to decide and determine whether or not acupuncture can help your condition, at least to some extent. It is always worth talking to your doctor about any treatment you are interested in as he or she can give you the benefit of their experience. Talking to acupuncturists and making use of internet resources is also a good way of getting whatever information you need about therapies you are interested in.

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