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.