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Acupuncture’s less-than-pinpoint accuracy

Updated Thursday, 25th March 2010

Is 'the science of alternative medicine' an oxymoron?

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Is acupuncture all in the mind?

Kat Arney: We recently saw an announcement that there’s going to be a regulator for alternative and complementary therapies to try and crack down on cowboy therapists, and the debate about complementary and alternative treatments does rage. Some people say it works, some people say, you know, it’s all rubbish, and there’s definitely a lack of solid scientific evidence really to show this.

Chris Smith: I was just going to say, is there actually anything that’s been done to prove that acupuncture and treatments like it do have a clinical effect, they do benefit patients?

Acupuncture hand guide Creative commons image Icon maerzbow under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license

Kat: Well, there has been some research in clinical trials of acupuncture. This is a treatment where needles are put into specific points in the body. These correspond to so-called lines along which energy, or chi, flows. There’s actually very, very little anatomical basis to acupuncture, these lines don’t correspond to nerves, they don’t correspond to anything anatomically, but some trials have actually shown that acupuncture does have benefits for relieving pain, and now a review by the Cochrane Researchers, this is a group that analysed the body of scientific evidence about different medical treatments, they’ve shown that acupuncture can actually be an effective treatment for preventing headaches and migraines, but there is an interesting twist.

Chris: Which is?

Kat: Well, the scientists have found that fake acupuncture, where they put the needles in the wrong place and don’t put them in right, is just as effective as real acupuncture, so this suggests that actually the benefits of acupuncture are likely not to be down to specific lines of chi and all these kind of things but a powerful placebo effect.

Chris: I was going to say, it’s probably more likely a sort of ritualistic thing isn’t it, people expect there to be a good outcome, a placebo benefit, so they get one, and also when you’re concentrating on having needles stuck into you, you’re less stressed and lots of headaches are caused by tension anyway. How did this Cochrane Review itself come to this conclusion that you could stick the needles just about anywhere?

Kat: Well, they did two studies. One was looking at research that had been done into acupuncture for frequent tension headaches, these are sort of mild to moderate headaches, and they found that overall eight weeks of acupuncture left patients with fewer migraines than those that had been given preventative drugs, so that’s good, but the fake acupuncture procedures were pretty much just as effective as real acupuncture, so really acupuncture could be an alternative for people who suffer from tension headaches and migraines who don’t want to take these drugs.

[Extracted from Breaking Science. Listen to the whole programme, originally broadcast on BBC Radio Five Live, January 2009]





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