The Need for Relevant Acupuncture Research

A paper written for Graceland University 
by Sarah Piestrup EAMP, Dipl OM, RN

Some promising research is being conducted that sheds light on a few of the mechanisms behind the effects of acupuncture. These include adenosine, endomorphin-1, beta endorphin, encephalin, and serotonin release and fMRI changes (Cabyoglu, Ergene, & Tan, 2006; Fang, et al., 2004; Goldman, et al., 2010; Hui, et al., 2005). There is even theory that shows a plausible explanation for the physical existence of acupuncture channels just under the skin and between muscles (Silberstein, 2009). However, most research looking at acupuncture for allopathic diagnoses in humans is simply irrelevant.

Because acupuncture is based on an ancient Asian conceptual framework it is difficult to transfer meaning into modern allopathic scientific understanding. Studies that look at “Traditional Chinese Medicine for treatment of fibromyalgia” are as irrelevant as a study looking at “Allopathic medicine for heart fire.” With detailed study design it can be done, and scientific studies have shown some benefits of acupuncture as compared to placebo (Cao, Liu & Lewith, 2010). However, because fibromyalgia does not have one equivalent diagnosis in Traditional East Asian Medicine (TEAM), the meaning of this word is irrelevant to what points or modalities are chosen to treat an individual patient. In other words, the individual patient would normally be diagnosed with a TEAM diagnosis that would be different for different patients with the allopathic diagnosis of fibromyalgia, and different treatments would be rendered based on that individual TEAM diagnosis. There are many ways to treat this one allopathic diagnosis based on the person’s underlying constitution, their specific symptoms and how they all relate to their specific lifestyle. Indeed, there are many different styles in the TEAM system that could be used, making conducting a controlled study very difficult.

Some levels of control, like consistency of treatment details, such as specific point use, would render the study irrelevant because they would remove the theoretical basis and diagnosis of acupuncture when used with placebo needling which is sure to stimulate a nearby point. In this type of case we are left with a study that is comparing bad acupuncture to bad acupuncture. It would be just as irrelevant as an allopathic study on an acupuncture diagnosis that has no relevance to modern terminology and no allopathic diagnostic equivalent.

Volker Scheid helped shed some light on some of the deeper aspects of this problem (such as a lack of consistency within the acupuncture community in regards to terminology and diagnoses) with his papers and research that scientifically examines the system of Chinese medicine. He illustrates how the terms used to describe patterns such as menopause are westernized in modern acupuncture schools and textbooks. These oversimplify the medicine and ignore the meaning of the time-tested system (Scheid, 2008). He also had a hand in research looking critically at this problem with a review of the literature on the treatment of menopause with TEAM (Scheid, et al., 2010). This type of refinement is crucial for TEAM to be critically analyzed with any relevance. It is useless to study it without a clear understanding of the basic diagnosis and terminology that define a medicine.

TEAM is the longest continually practiced literate medicine used consistently worldwide with the first known evidence of acupuncture on Otzi the Iceman; a 5,300 year old mummy found in Austria who had tattoos of acupuncture points used today for lumbar lordosis of which his spine showed evidence. This long history must not be lost to modern confusion because TEAM is a far too important and valuable system of medicine to loose.


Cabyoglu, M. T., Ergene, N. & Tan, U. (2006). The mechanism of acupuncture and clinical applications. International Journal of Neuroscience, 116, 115-125.

Cao, H., Liu J., & Lewith, G. T. (2010). Traditional Chinese Medicine for treatment of fibromyalgia: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine, 16(4), 397-409.

Fang, J. L., Krings, T., Weidemann, J., Meister, I. G. & Thron, A. (2004). Functional MRI in healthy subjects during acupuncture: different effects of needle rotation in real and false acupoints. Neuroradiology, 46(5), 359-62.

Goldman, N., Chen, M., Fujita, T., Xu, Q., Peng, W., Liu, W., ... Nedergaard, M. (2010). Adenosine A1 receptors mediate local anti-nociceptive effects of acupuncture. Nature Neuroscience, 13, 883-888. Retrieved from

Hui, K. K., Liu, J., Marina, O., Napadow, V., Haselgrove, C., Kwong, K. K., Kennedy, D. N., & Makris, N. (2005). The integrated response of the human cerbro-cerebellar and limbic systems to acupuncture stimulation at ST 36 as evidenced by fMRI. Neuroimage, 27(3), 479-96.

Otzi the iceman. (2011). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from

Scheid, V., Ward, T., Cha, W., Watanabe, K. & Liao, X. (2010). The treatment of menopausal symptoms by traditional East Asian medicines: Review and perspectives. Maturitas. doi: 10.1016/j.maturitas.2009.11.020

Silberstein, M. (2009). The cutaneous intrinsic visceral afferent nervous system: A new model for acupuncture analgesia. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 262(4), 637-642.