I haven’t updated my acupuncture adventure in a while, largely because I’m past the part of the course making general claims and justifications of acupuncture and into the portion that consists mostly of memorizing individual points and associated anatomical and functional elements. The details don’t matter a great deal if the general principles and the evidence related to them don’t hold up, and I remain unconvinced on that count. I appreciate the absence of mystical explanations concerning energy fields and extensive empty metaphors about Heat, Wind, Yin/Yang, and so on. However, the themes that are emerging in place of these concepts still seem quite problematic. I thought I would summarize some of the major principles being expounded in this course, and my concerns about them.
- Evidence of anatomical connection is taken as evidence of functional connection.
The instructors seem to feel that if any sort of physical connection can be traced between an acupuncture point and some other part of the body, it is fair to assume that stimulation at that point should influence that part. For example, if a point on a limb has sympathetic innervation that can be traced back to sympathetic nervous system (SNS) centers in the brain, it is assumed stimulation of that point can influence SNS.
There are several problems with this assumption. To begin with, as I discussed earlier, one can stick a needle almost anywhere on the body and find a nerve, muscle, blood vessel, or some other organ that it is claimed responds to needle stimulation. There is little evidence to suggest the particular points identified in traditional acupuncture, and still used in supposedly scientific acupuncture, are anatomically or functionally special. The assumption that they are underlies all the use of these, but the case for that assumption is weak and contradicted by abundant research showing that needling location makes little if any difference in the response to needling.
The other problem with the idea that because one can trace a nerve or blood vessel at one location back to other parts of the nervous or circulatory system one can manipulate the distant structures by needling this point is similar. In the body, everything is connected to everything else. There is almost no part of the body that can’t be connected in some way to any other part. Without showing that particular points used to cause specific effects, such as modulation of the SNS, have unique or specific connections that should cause those effects which other points don’t have, you are just arbitrarily identifying some locations as more special or connected than others in a way that isn’t evidence-based.
2. Any stimulus provided is assumed to result in the desired effect.
There seems to be another unproven assumption that when one stimulates a point believed to have special influence over some body organ or system that the stimulation will result only in the desired effect. Again as an example, if you needle a point that influences the SNS, it is assumed the influence will be what you want for the patient, increasing or decreasing SNS activity as desired. The main evidence for this seems to be the historical use of particular points for particular purposes. But if you can stimulate the SNS by needling a given muscle point, why isn’t it just as likely to cause undesired change? If point X downregulates SNS and point Y upregulates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), why couldn’t it be the other way around?
While the instructors acknowledge that acupuncture can have negative effects, these are mostly described as errors in needling, such as puncturing blood vessels, internal organs, or other structures one does not intend to puncture. It is also acknowledged that the needling itself can be painful. But the idea that correctly stimulating a particular point could have effects other than those desired has not, so far, been mentioned. This implies only beneficial effects with no side effects, which violates McKenzie’s Law.
3. Myofascial trigger point theory.
Dr. Robinson is an osteopath as well as a veterinarian, and a common element of osteopathic training is myofascial trigger point theory. This is the theory that pain and dysfunction, both locally and at distant parts of the body, can be caused by “knots” or “taut bands” of tension in muscles, which one can relieve by manipulation of these trigger points with massage, laser therapy, and needling. Dr. Robinson seems to suggest in her course that perhaps the most important way to identify which acupuncture points to treat in a given patient is to look for these trigger points and focus on relieving them locally, as well as treating the patient’s problem through other effects of acupuncture at points elsewhere on the body.
The problem is that trigger point theory is itself not much better supported by scientific evidence than acupuncture. It is widely believed and utilized among osteopaths, massage therapists, chiropractors, physical therapists, and others in both conventional and alternative medicine who treat musculoskeletal problems, but there is plenty of controversy and not a robust body of evidence to show the theory is correct or the effects of manipulative treatments occur through trigger point release. So it isn’t helpful to explain the unproven benefits of acupuncture using a similarly unproven, though somewhat more widely accepted, theory.
4. Vague terms with little specific evidence for their meaning
There is a lot of use of scientific and general terminology in ways that are not always defined very specifically and which seems to cover up the lack of evidence for implied clinical effects. For example, many purported effects of acupuncture are explained in terms of “neuromodulation.” I discussed this briefly earlier in the course, and the explanation or evidence presented for this concept hasn’t gotten a lot more detailed. Again, the assumption seems to be that if a point is connected to part of the nervous system then stimulation of that point will have desirable effects on that part of the nervous system. Calling this “neuromodulation” doesn’t explain or prove it to be true.
Similar problems pertain to other terms like “stimulating,” “releasing,” and so on. These may be descriptions of real actions and effects, but often they seem not to have very specific meaning or much evidence behind them.
Ultimately, I think Dr. Robinson and the other instructors are sincere in their belief that acupuncture can and should be scientific in its principles and validation. However, I also think they tend, as we all do, to interpret the limited and ambiguous evidence in ways that support beliefs they hold primarily based on clinical experience and habit. The tendency to gloss over evidence that contradicts our experiences and beliefs and to put the best possible face on evidence that supports them, even when it is weak, is universal. Unfortunately, even with the best intentions, that phenomenon can leave us with a firm commitment to our beliefs without a sound, scientific basis for them.