I get really annoyed when I'm reading the results of a
scientific study about the effectiveness of acupuncture, and the
author concludes that actual acupuncture was "not significantly
more effective than sham acupuncture." What they seem to be saying
is that acupuncture is not effective at treating X condition. What
they are actual discovering is that needle insertion almost
anywhere in the body will have an effect on the body's condition,
often providing relief from X condition.
I like this part. As Dr. Kwon always told us in
Point Location class, you can still help the patient even if you
don't stick the needle in the exact acupoint. This realization
saved my sanity on more than one occasion when trying to palpate
and count thoracic vertebrae to locate the oh-so-important points
of the Governing Vessel running up the spinal column. It's supposed
to be located at T6, but T7 will be good enough? Awesome. Thank you
for your flexibility, ancient wisdom.
So, back to the studies that drive me nuts. Here's how they
commonly shake out:
Exactly 100 patients were studied for chronic knee pain, with 25
receiving no treatment, 50 receiving actual acupuncture (inserting
needles at specifically proscribed points), and 25 receiving sham
acupuncture (inserting needles randomly in the body). Guess what?
The patients receiving no treatment did not experience improvement.
The patients receiving actual acupuncture reported a 50%
improvement, and those receiving sham acupuncture reported a 45%
I call that good news. The study concludes, instead, that actual
acupuncture is not significantly more effective than sham
acupuncture at treating knee pain. Wrong. What they actually did is
prove Dr. Kwon right -- not that he needs any additional
validation, seriously -- that even when needles are inserted at the
"incorrect" location, acupuncture still has therapeutic benefits
for the patient. Is the goal of an acupuncture treatment for knee
pain simply to eliminate the knee pain? Not exactly.
Any time acupuncture happens, that patient's body experiences a
shift in energy. We can usually feel a difference in the person's
pulse after treatment, compared to before. The qi (energy) has
moved, and in western terms, circulation usually improves. Sure,
the knee pain is improved, but the patient might also sleep better
than usual that night, awake with more energy than usual the next
day, or even notice that a new head cold has resolved
Were these other effects coincidental?
Maybe, but probably not. Any acupuncture is better than no
acupuncture, and the results of studies comparing no treatment,
sham acupuncture, and actual acupuncture will often reveal this
truth. In fact, this little "secret" is why I'm not against other
practitioners doing acupuncture on patients. We've all heard the
buzzword "dry needling," which is when say, your physical therapist
needles your arm when your elbow isn't healing as nicely as you'd
like. I know several chiropractors who have completed the 100-hour
certification in acupuncture, and they can often be seen sticking
some needles into a sore back muscle.
Some acupuncturists are completely against this concept of
non-acupuncturists needling patients, but I'm pretty much OK with
it. I know the patient is probably receiving some benefit
regardless of whether or not the needle goes in at an exact
acupoints. What's important to me is that the patient is aware that
dry needling or someone sticking some needles in where it hurts is
not all that acupuncture has to offer. Those techniques have
benefits, but not the full array of benefits that needling specific
acupoints on specific meridians can produce.
So, if you know someone who's been needled before and didn't
experience a great symptom reduction, it's still worth their time
to try acupuncture from an acupuncturist. Crazy, I know. It's not
that other providers are doing anything wrong; it's just that they
aren't receiving the more complete system of treatment via
acupuncture that we acupuncture students use.
Is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) better than conventional
western medicine? Would a provider of oriental medicine and
one of the ayurvedic traditions treat a patient the same
way? Do naturopaths diagnose the same medical conditions as
The answer to each of these questions is probably a solid
The point is that one medical system is not
necessarily better than another. Each of the above-mentioned
categories exist as an entire medical paradigm, complete with its
own unique way of diagnosing and treating an array of
health-related issues. Did you know that your chiropractor could
give you a pelvic exam, ladies? Did you know that your naturopathic
doctor could give you a spinal adjustment? And what about those
herbs? Why do western naturopaths have a different materia
medica than we students of oriental medicine do? Is slippery
elm awesome? I'll never know. And neither did the ancient Chinese,
because it didn't grow there.
We've all heard that there is competition between the students,
all graduating in Lombard at the same moment, as they get dumped
out into a market that becomes more and more saturated every day.
We all feel it from time to time -- a student of acupuncture who
assumes her classes are 10,000 times more difficult than that of
the massage student down the hall; the chiropractic intern who
thinks he's way more important than any acupuncturist in the
clinic; or the naturopath who points out that she can do everything
a chiropractor can do and more!
Are they all right? Or are we all just egotistical jerks? Again,
the answer is an unreassuring "sometimes."
What I'm learning at NUHS is the unmistakable value
of the various medical systems. My friends ask me if I scrape my
tongue daily or if I've dabbled in oil pulling. No and no, I tell
them. That's from the ayurvedic traditions of India, not the
ancient Chinese medicine that I'm studying. Does that mean I don't
think these practices have merit? Nope. I'm sure they do...I'm just
not learning about them in my program. I've actually tried oil
pulling, but I'm fairly certain I did it wrong, and I swallowed,
which I learned later defeats the point. Whoops. I also love
essential oils, and I frankly have no idea which tradition claims
What are we learning in the MS in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
program at NUHS? I've memorized hundreds of acupoints -- well,
a good chunk of them anyways -- and dozens of Chinese herbs, I
finally realized that ginger and garlic are making it
worse when I have a heat invasion, and I'm piecing
together why a point on my inner wrist is so helpful for my heart
palpitations. I finally learned how to spell "ayurvedic," and I
hope I can pronounce "naturopathy" correctly most of the time these
More importantly, I'm also learning that the
"competition" chatter has a much bigger bark than bite. We students
of oriental medicine like you students of chiropractic,
naturopathy, and massage therapy, and I feel fairly confident
assuming that you guys like us, too. In fact, the sheer number of
students who dual enroll in more than one program at NUHS proves
this point for me.
I value what the other practices and traditions bring to the
overall health and well-being of the patient. I don't expect that
I'll offer a patient the same knowledge and services that an ND or
an MD does; I'll offer them something almost entirely different in
fact. And that, my friends, is the point. We have a better shot at
helping people if we work together, value each other's
contributions and specialties, and keep an open mind to things that
might sound crazy at first. Energy crystals...what?!
• Jabbing Nerves with Needles
• Mission in Nicaragua
To read older blog posts, scroll to the bottom and click the "Older Posts" button.