I have already written about Homeopathy and Chiropractic. It should be no surprise to my regular readers that I am contemptuous of acupuncture too. There are several problems with acupuncture.

  1. It is based not on knowledge of biology, but on “qi” (energy.)
  2. It does not cure, but it practitioners claim that it can.
  3. Needles can damage nerves and may cause infection if not sterile.

The first point is important. With most medicines we know the mechanism through which they affect the body. We know which part of the body they alter, and we usually know how they work. Acupuncture is based on the idea of qi, pronounced chi, and meaning a kind of energy that supposedly flows around the body through channels called meridians. We have no evidence of qi or of meridians, but we do have evidence of nerves, hormones, chemicals and all the other concepts that make up the human body. Qi was an attempt to explain life before we had the modern knowledge of how the body works. Now we know better.

Acupuncture does not cure anything. We know it doesn’t, because there have been trials of acupuncture. The acupuncture page on Wikipedia lists many of them. Acupuncture may be effective against pain, although the findings of studies vary and there is insufficient evidence to say either way. It is likely that reported pain relief from acupuncture is largely a result of the placebo effect. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since the important thing here is relief from pain and the placebo effect can do that. Acupuncture may also help relieve pain by distraction through simulation of the nerves and the release of endorphins. This is not proven.

While acupuncture can provide pain relief, it cannot cure disease. It cannot flush out virus or bacteria infection, or cancer cells, and it cannot repair the body when it has gone wrong. The British Acupuncture Council claims that acupuncture can help with all sorts of things – colds and flu, infertility, chronic fatigue syndrome. This is of course absurd.

For the most part, acupuncture is safe, but as it is an invasive procedure there are risks. There is a danger of infection if the needles and the environment are not sterile. There is a danger of damaging a nerve. There is a danger from a needle entering a lung, kidney or other organ if the needle is inserted too deeply.

Overall, then, some people might like to use acupuncture to provide relief from pain, if it works for then. Unfortunately it does not work in enough people to produce a significant result in tests, and the results that it does produce are likely to be from the placebo effect. It certainly doesn’t cure anything, and if people use acupuncture in preference to tried and tested medicine then they may prolong their illness or endanger themselves by effectively leaving themselves untreated. Acupuncture is not entirely risk free anyway.

I know that in spite of my arguments here many people will choose to believe in the curative abilities of acupuncture anyway.  That is their right to do so, but they should understand that belief in qi and the manipulation of qi through the use of needles is not a scientific belief. If anything, it is a religious one.

If someone wishes to choose to use acupuncture instead of researched and tested medicine, I cannot stop them. If it provides pain relief for them, then I am happy for them. I think it is fair to say that of all the alternative treatments, acupuncture shows the most promise of a plausible mechanism and of tests showing a useful difference, at least for pain relief. I take issue with practitioners that make absurd claims about what acupuncture can do; if someone chooses acupuncture because they think that it will cure their viral infection or cancer then they have been conned. At the very least, we have laws against obtaining fees through false claims and against making false claims in advertising material. If someone believes that alternative medicine replaces the need to have vaccinations, then they would be putting the rest of us in danger and that idea would need to be stopped. I wrote about this in my previous blog post, Alternative medicine – a dangerous game.

Related blog posts

Alternative medicine: a dangerous game

Homeopathy again

Do you know what Chiropractic really is?

More on the placebo effect


Author: Latentexistence

The world is broken and I can't fix it because I am broken. I can, however, rant about it all and this is where I do that when I can get my thoughts together. Most of the time you'll find my words on Twitter rather than here though. I sometimes write for Where's The Benefit too.

7 thoughts on “Acupuncture”

  1. Nicely written piece and you have somewhat evaluated both sides though your bias and prejudice is to my mind plain to see. Let me draw a comparison to something a little closer to your heart.

    OK I now point you to this URL from a real academic site and NOT wikipedia (which although it may be factually correct some of the time is not a truly reliable source to back up any arguement) and I suggest you closely read the section titled “What is acupuncture good for?”

    You will see that PERHAPS there MAY be some truth in some of the claims (though I’ll grant you some claims not endorsed on the academic page could be false). 

  2. Good stuff. I am sick to death of this kind of woo being bandied about. “It must work, people wouldn’t have been using it for squillions of years if it didn’t!”. Load of pseudoscientific nonsense.

    You also highlight another problem. Yes, people are of course free to use “alternative” treatments if they wish, but their personal opinions on them are NOT of equivalent value to those of scientists, researchers and doctors. That they should be presented as such is downright offensive to years – centuries – of scientific research.

    Sorry about the rant; woo is one of my pet hates.

  3. Alternative medicine is just that; an alternative way of thinking about health, wellness, and the pursuit of body functionality.  I don’t think you can dismiss some of the positive effects of acupuncture demonstrated clinically.  I know two physicians who use it effectively in addition to traditional medicine, and there is a very active school in my town.  Additionally, I suggest you see a documentary about its use along with other alternative approaches in China, called, “Nine Thousand Needles.”  I agree that any approach which touts a “cure” is suspect, but I know of no practitioners who do that.

  4. Can I post my favourite quote again? Oh go on, please?

    “Do you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proven to work?


    People who point to the occasional published report which “shows” it works don’t understand that, in a fully randomised double-blind trial seeking proof of correlation at the p=0.05 level (for example), flipping a coin would be proven to be “effective” one trial in twenty. Take all the data from all the properly run trials, and check the statics.

    Though I’m struggling to imagine what a double-blind trial of acupuncture would look like.

  5. What may be good to others does not mean it is good for everyone. Don’t rely much on alternative way of healing if you think you already need professional help. Nothing more could give you a peace of mind than knowing you are safe.

    expert on acupunctuur amsterdam

  6. E² Acupuncture Science Since 2600BC
    Any skeletal muscle pain can be easily cured by Tradition Chinese Medicine (TCM)

    For 4,610 years (2600BC), Yellow Explorer’s time. Until now acupuncturist continues this ancient TCM practice to eliminating all diseases (trying).  All the main hospitals of China use this to treat most patients as busy as KFC fast food.

    Acupuncture treatment will has needling sensation effect for first few days. This called “DE Qi/Chi” (Arrival of Oxy’Blood—needling sensation). it must be achieved so that Yin & Yang(Negative and Positive energy) can be balanced and body’s immune system has strengthens,  else diseases can’t be eliminated. The fundamental manipulating techniques are Lifting and thrusting & Twirling or rotating. TCM Acupuncture therapeutic works and easily cures muscular pain if apply correctly.

    Beside sciatica(more trials needed), all others skeletal muscle pains are not recorded  in TCM text therefore no “Acupoints(???)” can be provided to any acupuncturist as that they need to advancing the practice and pick the right AcuPoints.

    Be respectful, Acupuncture is not a device or voodoo magic, it does not release any things (certainly not endorphins, inflammation, etc, ..) or anti-inflammatory agents. Please do not mislead. It is a marvelous 4,610+ years old, micro surgical tool, etc, .

    “An acupuncture is bad science”. not much can be expected  in 4,610 years ago,
    science not even exist. Good science & Resources only available from 1850AD
    such great scientists:   Heinrich Hertz (1887) & Albert Einstein (1905).

    Since 2005 E² Acupuncture has added a new chapter of modem acupuncture science. which has scientific proven, formulated, verified and even dispelling the amount of excessive Yins/-Toxin can be calculated.  Treatment uses single new
    save disposal and painless micro-needle insertion to proper “Acupoints(??)” and
    has no side effects, least risk mainly due to accident same as any treatments. No Lifting and thrusting & Twirling or rotating manipulating needed so that patients can comfortably having a cup of  tea/coffee.

    Acupuncturist must fully understood the Five Elements(五行), Five Changes(五变) and Five Shu/Transports(五输/通)  Yin & Yang balance principles. if any one treated by 5 X 30 minutes in 2 weeks and has no relief by 4 weeks, please discontinues and shop around.

    I have my Plantar fasciitis cured twice by my own EE Acupuncture, last cured was on
    march/2011 since then pain remains free and no sign of coming back.
    (E²/EE: Eliminates  Excessive Yins/-Toxin/Electrons)

    Aren’t you seeking and unlock this 4,610+ years old great hidden scientific facts of
    Acupuncture. For latest update, please check/click on my site below
    or more help below sites

    Sciatica update (loc: buttock & 5 inches down, 2 spots).
    treated on 30th/10/2011.
    12 days after and feedback:
    “Been feeling the slight tenderness in the area where the needle were inserted. Felt
    my legs is tired but not the numbness.” (50% pain relief, 100% no numbness)

    5 weeks Later (email on 4th/11/2011):
    “Seems to be fine, slight tenderness but definitely better than before” (now 90%

    why pain relief if it can be so easily cured.
    and the cost of curing it is so much less then a pair of PF shoes and not to mention
    others, .


  7. The ancient Chinese probably discovered it by accident, that by inserting needles into different parts of the body they can have an impact on people’s health,” she said, adding that they eventually mapped out a pattern of over 360 pressure points.

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