Is acupuncture more effective than placebo, and who should you trust?

I have been hearing some questioning lately, as some studies are being quoted on the radio and in the news and wanted to clarify a few things about the science behind acupuncture.  First of all, let me say that acupuncture is the oldest, professional, continually practiced, literate medicine that has been used world wide.  It is well over 2,000 years old possibly older than 5,200 years old and continues to thrive due to it's effectiveness.  There is more science behind acupuncture from China (that has been recorded for the last 2,000 years) than we will have for western medicine for a very long time.  In the United States, however, the science is often poor, limited and sometimes misleading due to the way acupuncture is studied using a western context that is not equatable to Traditional East Asian Medicine (which includes detailed acupuncture and herbal theory).

The placebo controlled acupuncture studies that are considered to be the highest level of evidence in modern medical science are designed to eliminate variables.  They often use the same points on every subject, given one diagnosis, and this is simply not how acupuncture is done. There are in-depth theories behind acupuncture, none of which equate with any western diagnosis.  So if a patient has fibromyalgia, (or even something as simple as low back or knee pain) there are a multitude of acupuncture diagnosis that may be associated with one western diagnosis, and every patient must be evaluated separately according to the Traditional East Asian Medicine diagnosis in order to effectively treat them with acupuncture.  Then, they use placebo needles, now this is where it just gets silly... have you ever seen a placebo massage study or a placebo surgery study?  Usually the answer is no.  There is no place on the body you can place a needle or even a "sham" needle (that is not fully inserted or just taped on) that does not stimulate the nervous system as an acupuncture needle would.  Don't get me wrong, we know that there is a difference in the effects of points used properly vs placebo, there have been many studies showing changes in the brain, chemicals released, heat changes, and electromagnetic changes associated with the proper acupuncture points.  This does not mean that a placebo needle is an effective way to study any more than a placebo massage would be.  Remember they are using a western diagnosis and one treatment for all the participants in most cases so they are comparing bad acupuncture to bad acupuncture and amazingly we still often get a 30% effective rate (average placebo effective rate is 20% or less) proving even bad acupuncture works !  It is also important to note that there are far more studies showing acupuncture's effectiveness for a myriad of diseases than there are studies showing it’s ineffectiveness.  Even the World Health Organization has long stood behind this long list of conditions effectively treated  with acupuncture.  Also, many of the poorly designed studies do not even meet the criteria for clinical relevance by even western medical standards. 

There are plenty of studies showing acupuncture's effectiveness beyond placebo that are well designed.  As for the most recently widely publicised study about knee pain that showed acupuncture was not more effective than placebo, the study was too short (3 months) and other similar studies over longer periods (6 months) do show effectiveness for knee pain, showing us that it takes time, which was no secrete, knee pain can be a more tenacious problem to treat, not to say I have not had patients walk out pain free after their first treatment for knee pain.

Before I go on I would like you to know that I am nothing but amazed by the value of standard western medical practice and I am currently devoting part of my time to becoming a Family Nurse Practitioner so I can use this valuable modern medicine that saves and prolongs lives.  However, when it comes to the actual science I have been astonished that; according to the text from my research class I took for my Nurse Practitioner degree Melnyk & Fineout (2005), an "alarming number" of health care providers do not utilize research in their daily practice and it takes an average of 17 years for new findings to reach standard medical practice.  Much is being done about this as we move toward evidence based practice, as we should.  Also, your doctors clinical and theoretical knowledge are vast and invaluable and should be respected and investigated with the utmost respect.  Not to say that you should do what you are told with out question.  Any good practitioner (if time permits) should be open to your questions and concerns and help to empower you about your health.  No one person will ever have all the answers, and the answers may not yet be known to mankind either, but we do know a lot about the human body, and that knowledge is more powerful when all aspects are clearly understood.  So trust your doctor, they have a lot of education behind them, but never stop questioning. 

Unfortunately, even your doctor may have been unknowingly mis-lead.  First, there is publication bias, where only positive studies are published readily and negative studies are held to the way side only to be discovered years later.  A recent blaring example of this is the drugs used to treat depression which when all the evidence was gathered and evaluated turned out to be just as effective as placebo in most cases unless there as a severe depression (minute number of cases for the total prescribed).  What is particularly alarming about this fact is that we do know that the side effects can cause suicide, worsening depression as the brain chemicals like serotonin are depleted by the drugs, and many other unnecessary uncomfortable effects (especially for children).  On the same issue of publication bias, I just wrote a detailed paper on statin drugs and dementia, and found an international meta-analysis that was not available on a pub-med search that showed the massive publication bias in this field (feel free to contact me for details).  Statins are much more likely to cause harm than good when it comes to long-term brain health, which would make sense because every cell in our brain and nervous system is made from cholesterol why would taking it away help?

Once again, before I go on I want to acknowledge that drugs save lives and that drug companies are responsible for the vast majority of modern medical research.  However, beyond publication bias there are new alarming facts being produced about the blatant lies coming from some drug company funded studies.  Avandia has been literally killing people and your doctor had no way of knowing this since a major study used to keep the drug on the market was falsified.  Now, PLEASE do NOT blame your doctor !  It's not their fault that they are given false information and mislead into believing they are helping.  It is, however, a good idea to ask about a treatments effective rate on health outcomes like death rates and not lab or test values.  In the case of type II diabetes, it turns out that lowering your blood sugar with drugs (many drugs including insulin were included) may also be causing more harm than good.  Treating the symptom like blood sugar, and not the root (insulin resistance in this case) is like taking the smoke alarm out of a burning building (thank you to Mark Hyman for the analogy).

We need more good direct science to base our health care on, and until then please make careful decisions and rely on what we do know with absolute certainty, your life style, including diet and exercise matter immensely and are often more important factors than what drug you are on.  Diet and exercise can alter your genes so you have no reason to blame things like your weight solely on genetics.  You can get to better health more readily with the time tested methods that may not be as easy as a pill but with all this information you should now know there is sometimes no other answer.  Of couse, the individual always matters and I mean the individual drug and the individual person.  Drugs do save lives but it may be less often than we would like and every one is different.  The FDA is currently trying to ban the chemo drug Avastin as it has been shown not to increase life when looked at broadly, this does not mean it has not saved individual lives but it does mean it is being over-prescribed to the wrong people.  Avastin was shown to change test results and x-rays for the positive but LiFe is what matters and you can have a nice x-ray and lab report but if you are dead in 3 months what does that matter?  We now know that the Epo drugs were probably hastening death in many chemo patients and they were handed out like water to cancer patients for many years while the drug companies that studied them made billions of dollars.  It is important to get new treatments out there as soon as possible but we must use caution and reason in doing so.

So, is acupuncture more effective than placebo?  Yes it is.  Its effects are subtly profound but it's safety is undeniable and its history shows us that it may be one of the safest effective treatments for many conditions that do not have any other option.  As for the western doctors (which will include me in a few years) you should trust your doctor, but know that you are the master of your health and no pill or quick fix can have the same benefit as prevention in the first place.  So please, take care and let me or your trusted provider know if you have any questions about how to best solve your heath problems !

References in links and

Melnyk, B. M. & Fineout-Overholt, E. (2005). Evidence-Based Practice.  Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.