I have written extensively about acupuncture since it is one of the most widely used and accepted of the alternative therapies. It is also complex, with many different definitions, associated theories, and a huge body of relevant research evidence. Sorting through all of this to make a rational, evidence-based assessment of whether any of the various practices called acupuncture have legitimate, demonstrable medical value is challenging. Over the years, my assessment has evolved, so I want to start by summarizing how I currently view this practice.
What is Acupuncture?
A general definition of acupuncture that captures most of the claims and practices of modern practitioners would probably be something like, “the insertion of fine needles into specific locations on the body with the intent of producing beneficial health effects.” This is necessarily vague because there are so many different and mutually inconsistent rationales and theories for how acupuncture is supposed to work and so many different clinical practices. Some say acupuncture manipulates mystical spiritual “energy” while others claim it works by stimulating nerves or inducing release of a variety of neurotransmitters or other endogenous compounds. Some acupuncturists place needles at points all over the body, and others limit their needling to the hand, or the ear, or other specific parts of the body. There is nothing like a consistent, agreed-upon definition or map of acupuncture points and channels. Even the use of needles is not universal, and sometimes needling is accompanied by electrical stimulation, the burning of herbs on needles, and many other practices.
Some of the theoretical constructs used to explain or justify acupuncture are clearly more religious than scientific, and there is no point in talking about Qi or spiritual energies if one is trying to seriously evaluate the use of acupuncture as a medical therapy. However, there are more plausible potential explanations involving the physiological effects of needling in locations associated with nerves and other anatomic structures. My current view is that while needling undoubtedly has physiological effects, it has not been convincingly demonstrated that these are predictable, repeatable, and controllable to achieve beneficial clinical outcomes. I also am not convinced that acupuncture points or channels exist as a consistent network of identifiable anatomical structures that can be predictably identified and manipulated to achieve a desired clinical goal. It is not impossible that this is true, but the literature is not compelling.
Does Acupuncture Work?
There is an enormous amount of basic and clinical research on acupuncture, and a lot of it appears to show meaningful clinical effects. However, acupuncture is challenging to study because it can be hard to define “real” and “fake” acupuncture, it can be difficult to effectively blind patients to whether they are receiving real treatment or the sham, and it is impossible to blind acupuncturists. The demeanor and style of communication of acupuncturists has been shown to affect the perception of patients as to whether or not they benefit from treatment, so this inability to blind therapists is a real problem.
Ultimately, much of the acupuncture literature cannot be viewed as very reliable due to these and other sources of bias. The best controlled studies seem to suggest that acupuncture affects subjective symptoms and perceptions more than objectively measurable indicators of disease. This is most consistent with a placebo effect, and perhaps some very non-specific physiologic effects. However, there is some room for rational uncertainty about the extent to which acupuncture might have small benefits in terms of pain, nausea, and a couple of other clinical symptoms.
Is It Safe?
There are definitely risks associated with acupuncture. Human patients have experienced dizziness and other unpleasant subjective symptoms, though again whether this is directly due to acupuncture or a nocebo effect is difficulty to determine. Infections and injuries from needles, sometimes serious, have been reported. Overall, serious adverse effects seem to be quite rare when experienced, formally trained acupuncturists are doing the needling.
Most of the theories behind how acupuncture might work are either complete nonsense or at best not fully validated by convincing evidence. There is clinical research that shows some benefits from acupuncture treatment, but this is mostly in terms of subjective symptoms and seems likely to be predominantly a placebo effect. Acupuncture is pretty safe, though there are some risks, especially when proper technique is not used.
My Acupuncture Adventure
Given this assessment, it will likely come as a surprise that I have signed up to take a training course in acupuncture. There are several reasons for this, and since I intend to share my experiences through this blog, I thought I would start by describing my goals and intentions at the beginning.
While I am perhaps 75-80% convinced acupuncture operates primarily as a placebo, as I said there are some plausible potential mechanisms by which it could have true clinical benefits, and there is some reasonable quality clinical literature to support these. In the interest of a truly skeptical evaluation of acupuncture, and following the principles of proportioning judgment to the evidence, I am interested in exploring some of the claims, theories, and evidence for acupuncture in more detail. The best way to do this is not only to seek information from sources that agree with my existing views of the practice but to engage with supporters and advocates who have different views. Challenging one’s own beliefs is a core value of skepticism, and I am hoping to put that into action.
Additionally, acupuncture is quite popular in veterinary medicine, at least where I practice. I have a moderately large number of clients who seek it out, as well as a number of colleagues who practice conventional, science-based medicine exclusively yet recommend or refer for acupuncture treatment. Currently, I share with clients who ask about acupuncture the views I have outlined above and emphasize that the existing evidence in veterinary medicine is limited, weak, and gives little reason to expect much harm or much benefit from the practice.
Despite this uncertainty, pet owners will often choose to try acupuncture anyway, even without much evidence it will benefit their pets. Currently in my area, the only way for them to receive this therapy is through a few local holistic veterinarians who not only practice acupuncture but who are fully committed to TCVM and other pseudoscientific practices and who actively counsel their clients to avoid science-based care. Despite some misgivings, I have come to feel that these patients would be better served receiving this therapy from someone who will be honest with clients about the lack of good evidence for real benefits and who will continue to provide them appropriate, evidence-based care as well. If acupuncture is, at worst, a relatively low-risk placebo therapy, then these patients will be better served by this approach than by being handed over to practitioners with a broader alternative, anti-science agenda.
I have long been interested in investigating acupuncture more directly, but I simply could not stomach the thought of slogging through textbooks and lectures than talked about Qi, Ying and Yang, the Five Elements, pulse diagnosis, and all the other TCVM folklore as if it were a legitimate way to approach health and disease in the modern world. Fortunately, I have the opportunity to take an acupuncture training course that largely eschews this sort of mysticism, Medical Acupuncture for Veterinarians (MAV), taught by Dr. Narda Robinson.
Dr. Robinson is a professor at the Colorado State University School of Veterinary Medicine, where she teaches and practices comparative and integrative pain management. She is one of the rare proponents of alternative medical practices who I believe has a genuine commitment to evaluating these through rigorous science, and she is a well-known opponent of pseudoscience in veterinary medicine. Dr. Robinson and I have spoken together at the AVMA annual conference, and we have interacted through our efforts on behalf of the AVMA resolution condemning homeopathy and through this blog. We often disagree about the conclusions that should be drawn from the evidence concerning acupuncture, glucosamine, and other specific topics. But it is not necessary to always agree in order to respect someone else’s efforts and goals.
Dr. Robinson describes medical acupuncture this way:
Scientific medical acupuncture utilizes modern medical knowledge of anatomy and physiology to design treatment protocols based on rational mechanisms of action and objectively identifiable endpoints without resorting to folkloric diagnostic approaches or metaphorical ideations. Veterinary medicine should be scientific and evidence-based.
I think that is a perfectly sound and reasonable way to approach the practice, and while Dr. Robinson has not yet convinced me that the evidence actually supports medical acupuncture as more than a placebo therapy, I accept that we share a commitment to a scientific approach to the question, so I am willing to evaluate her claims and the evidence she uses to support them carefully and seriously.
MAV consists of a series on online modules, followed by an onsite practical training course. Over the next eight months, I will be working through the online modules and preparing for the practical training. I plan to evaluate the content of the modules as thoroughly as I can, drawing on critical appraisal of published evidence, and then share my thoughts through a series of posts. If I ultimately begin providing acupuncture services to clients, I hope to write about those experiences as well.
This adventure, of course, raises the question of whether I am succumbing to the exhortations often made by advocates for alternative therapies to “try it and see for yourself.” If I start treating patients with acupuncture, even while clearly disclosing that it is most likely an elaborate placebo, and these patients appear to improve, will I become a convert to this therapy and start sliding down the rabbit hole into a Wonderland where every therapy works so long as someone has tried it and thinks it does? That seems unlikely.
I am well aware of the many cognitive biases and other sources of error that make uncontrolled personal experience a poor guide to cause and effect relationships. I make use of many treatments for which there is little real scientific evidence, as everyone who practices veterinary medicine unfortunately must given the paucity of high-quality research in our field. And some of these therapies sure look like they work! But I am always aware that this perception is based on shaky ground, and I have so far had no difficulty accepting new practices and abandoning familiar ones when good quality research evidence emerged that contradicted my intuition and experiences.
My goal in learning about and potentially employing acupuncture is not to validate or invalidate the practice through my own clinical experience, since this is not how science-based medicine works, but to engage with the theories, claims, and evidence in more depth and to hopefully minimize the exposure of my patients and clients to the egregious pseudoscience and anti-science ideologies of most of the veterinary acupuncturists they currently have access to.