Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Everything You’ve Heard about Acupuncture Is Wrong

By Harriet Hall

Acupuncture is often cited as an effective alternative method of treating a range of ailments, but few people are aware of the origins, philosophies and contradictions involved.

Acupuncture is widely believed to be effective but is not widely used. In America, only 6.5% of people have tried it, and a quarter of those stopped after a single treatment. One-quarter of the Japanese have tried it at least once, but more than one-third of those said they wouldn’t use it again.

Most popular beliefs about acupuncture are wrong. Here are some common ones.

Acupuncture Makes Sense

The theoretical basis of acupuncture is pre-scientific and vitalistic, involving imaginary structures and forces. Qi is said to flow through meridian channels in the body, with any blockage of flow causing disease. Inserting needles at specific acupoints is said to restore the flow.

Because of acupuncture’s relationship to astrology there were originally 365 acupoints, symbolically corresponding to the days of the year. Qi, meridians and acupoints are undetectable by anatomists or physiologists.

Acupuncture Means One Thing

There are many different systems of acupuncture: some involve skin penetration, some don’t. Some involve the entire body; others are limited to the hand, ear, scalp etc.

Penetration methods include needles alone or with manipulation (twirling) or electrical stimulation, tiny gold beads implanted under the skin, and injection of homeopathic remedies into acupoints. Non-penetrating methods include transcutaneous stimulation of acupoints with electricity, light, sound, pressure, heat (moxibustion), electromagnetic frequencies, vacuum (cupping), colour, waving hands over acupoints, and striking the appropriate meridian on an acupuncture doll with a metal hammer (Tong Ren).

Different systems disagree about the number of meridians (anywhere from nine to 36), while identified acupoints range from 30 on the ear alone in auricular acupuncture to 300 on the hand alone in Korean acupuncture, with a total of over 2000 for all the systems combined. Almost every spot on the skin is someone’s acupoint.

Acupuncture Is Ancient and Chinese

Historians think acupuncture may have originated in ancient Greece. The earliest Chinese reference to “needling” is from 90 BC, and apparently refers to lancing abscesses and bloodletting. Later references described the insertion of large bone or metal needles directly into the site of pain. Thirteenth century European accounts of Chinese medicine didn’t even mention acupuncture. Ear acupuncture was invented in 1957 in France when the external ear reminded Dr Nogier of a curled foetus in the womb..

Acupuncture has been repeatedly banned in China. Chairman Mao cynically reinstated Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to placate the masses because he couldn’t supply them with effective Western-style medical care. Today it is mainly used by the elderly and the poor. The number of TCM practitioners in China has dropped from 800,000 to 270,000. In Taiwan, only 6% of the population has used acupuncture.

Acupuncture Anaesthesia

Surgery is never performed with acupuncture as the sole anaesthesia. Acupuncture is used for surgery in China, but only as an adjunct to strong doses of local anaesthetics, sedatives and narcotics. Only 10% of patients are considered suitably suggestible candidates.

Acupuncture Is Perfectly Safe

There are published reports of infection, pneumothorax and death. In 2011 the ex-president of South Korea, Roh Tae-wo, underwent major surgery to remove a 6.5 cm acupuncture needle from his lung.

It’s Worth Using for the Placebo Effect

Medical ethicists universally condemn using placebos as it amounts to lying. Placebos “work” only for subjective symptoms like pain: their effects tend to be small in magnitude and short in duration. They waste time and money, can delay effective treatment, and may even have fatal consequences. Not recognising the severity of an attack is a major cause of asthma deaths; patients who subjectively feel better but have no objective improvement in lung function might not get lifesaving treatment.

Harriet Hall MD is a retired family physician. She writes the SkepDoc column in Skeptic magazine, is an editor of the Science-Based Medicine blog, and is co-author of Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions. Part 2 of this column will examine the scientific evidence for acupuncture.