Shannon Cogan

Acupuncture is a component of traditional Chinese medicine, which is also called TCM. It is unclear exactly when acupuncture originated, but it was being used for healing purposes in China by 100 BC.1 The practice involves putting thin needles into certain points on the body. In traditional Chinese medicine, these needles were used to balance the yin and yang energy forces in the body. However, modern practitioners now generally claim that acupuncture needles stimulate a specific site on the body to begin the healing process. While acupuncture is generally thought of as helping with specific bodily pain, such as back pain or cramps, many practitioners claim that it can treat nearly any ailment, including drug addiction and impotence. Acupuncture is incredibly popular in the United States, as over 10 million sessions are given each year.2
Believers in acupuncture can make many claims about why they choose to receive treatment. Acupuncture treatment in incredibly common, and is used by many well respected treatment centers, including the Ohio State Wexner Center. Studies have reliably found that acupuncture patients have differ significantly in pain reduction from a waitlist group, which is likely an important reason why this form of treatment is so widely used. However, many scientists have doubts about the standards of acupuncture research as well as the conclusions that have been drawn from the research that has been conducted. Many scientists suggest that research has been conducted poorly, tends to respond to biases and lacks good control groups3. Meta- analyses are often unable to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of treatment, leaving sceptics unconvinced about acupuncture’s ability to treat a variety of ailments.
Evidence for the efficacy of acupuncture is particularly difficult to evaluate. While many studies have been conducted on the use of acupuncture, they often produce contradictory findings. It is particularly difficult to develop a good control group when evaluating acupuncture, and it is nearly impossible to develop a test that is truly double blind, as a practitioner would know if they were practicing true acupuncture and might influence the patient. For this reason, many sceptics are critical of positive findings and believe that acupuncture’s effectiveness can be attributed to the placebo effect. When a sham needle was developed (patients feel like they are receiving acupuncture but the needle does not fully enter the skin) no significant difference in post operating nausea was found between the sham group and the acupuncture group,4 supporting the belief that acupuncture is entirely a placebo treatment.

While support of the effectiveness of acupuncture is not strong, the social context of the treatment is likely what sustains its practice. In some countries (such as China and Japan) acupuncture is trusted because it has been used as a treatment for thousands of years and is integrated into a cultural tradition. In the United States, acupuncture likely continues to be used because of the trust that individuals have in their healthcare providers. Doctors continue to recommend acupuncture to individuals suffering from a variety of ailments, particularly chronic pain, and these individuals of ten have no reason to question the knowledge of their doctors. Because the placebo affect alone can often be incredibly effective, patients may feel better after receiving acupuncture even if it has no essential healing qualities. For this reason, patients likely continue their belief in the treatment even if it is not really effective.

Overall, acupuncture is an interesting example of a belief that is maintained in spite of a lack of strong evidence. In this instance, people likely continue to believe that acupuncture works because they are not interested in or able to comb through a great deal of confusing and often contradictory data. At the same time, individuals trust the expertise of doctors who continue to promote the treatment. Perhaps most interestingly, the use of acupuncture might be a fairly effective treatment solely through its ability to create a strong placebo effect which can reduce mental stress and sometimes even physical pain.