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- Issue 81: April 2009
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Acupuncture? Ė A Prickly Question!

Loretta Marron BSc
From a Skeptics Perspective

Issue 77: November 2008
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The empty chair beside her brought with it a thousand wonderful memories.  Sitting together they had smoked and talked and shared their dreams and troubles. 
Her slender fingers now coaxed yet another cigarette out of the half empty packet and sadly she knew that the treatment she had some days earlier had failed. 
As the afternoon slid by, she could hear the radio repeating its promises of a laser treatment with an “85% success rate” to “quit smoking the easy way”.  
For this month I’d like to discuss acupuncture.

Her best friend was dying from lung cancer and now afraid for her own health she had the laser treatment. 
Still unable to quit smoking she asked me to investigate the procedure. 
She said it was conducted by doctors and that it included a follow up ‘detox’ program. 
I phoned up the clinic 1 
but on questioning the receptionist it soon became apparent that there were no doctors, only three acupuncturists. 
The treatment was laser acupuncture and the so-called ‘detox’ pills seemed to consist of multivitamins. 
Costing $495 the treatment lasted one hour. 
I handed her my research  - a Cochrane review 2  that had come to the conclusion that “acupuncture and related therapies do not appear to help smokers who are trying to quit”. 

Claiming to help with many health conditions, the concept of acupuncture needling, acupressure and laser acupuncture are to let Ch’i energy flow in or out of you, thus unblocking your mythical Channels, to balance your Yin and Yang (or some such pseudoscientific nonsense). 
Why anyone wants to be jabbed with a lot of needles so that they resemble a moulting porcupine, I don’t know, but you can claim acupuncture treatments on some private health insurances, which seems to suggest that it works.

Pharmacies are also now selling ‘antisnor’ rings that you wear on your little finger while you sleep.3  
Apparently, the ring sits on a critical acupuncture point that they claim is on the appropriate meridian and miraculously, according to the advertisement, you stop snoring. 
According to my Clinical Acupuncture book 4  I could find no evidence to support this claim either; in fact, the Large Intestine Channel (LI), which incidentally goes nowhere near your large intestine, and which claims to help with throat conditions, does not include your smallest digit, but starts at the index finger and heads up your arm via your throat to your nose.

In the late 1990’s the national authorities in Germany became concerned about paying for unproven acupuncture treatments. 
Germany’s Federal Committee of Physicians and Health Insurers initiated eight high-quality mega-trials for migraine, tension-type headache, chronic low back pain and knee osteoarthritis, with patient numbers from 200 to over 1,000. 
Each trial consisted of three groups; acupuncture, sham acupuncture and no acupuncture.  The sham acupuncture used at that time was either misplacing needles or superficially needling the patient. 
In 2007 the first of the results was published – “Acupuncture was no more effective than sham acupuncture in reducing migraine headaches”.

The difficulty in conducting clinical trials with acupuncture is that needles are used and conducting double blind experiments may never be possible. 
However, they are getting close. 
A further improvement now involves both acupuncture and telescopic needles covered with a plastic guide tube that remains stuck to your skin. 
To further enhance the illusion of reality, the patients see the long needle and watch it seemingly disappear into their bodies. 
At the same time they also feel a small-localized pain. 
With the telescopic needles the skin is not penetrated. 
A similar design was developed in both the UK (Exeter University) and Germany (Heidelberg and Hannover Universities). 
These are the first true placebos for acupuncture trials and researchers are confident that using these versions of sham acupuncture will have the highest quality trials ever conducted. 
The first results are now emerging and it seems that “acupuncture increasingly looks as if it is nothing more than placebo” 5 
.

The mass of research has brought with it four additional outcomes 5 :

• there is no evidence of Ch’i or meridians, which form the traditional principles of acupuncture

• most of the positive results from acupuncture have been of poor quality with inadequate placebo control groups.

• based on the results from high quality research, acupuncture does not treat any condition except possibly some types of pain or nausea

• there is also high quality research on pain and nausea that contradicts the previous conclusion!

In other words the evidence is both inconsistent and not convincing and at best, remains borderline.

So it looks like acupuncture is yet another placebo and as for the ‘antisnore’ rings, they should sit alongside the magnet bracelets in the placebo jewellery section in pharmacies to bring yet more false hope to the vulnerable. 

References:

1.
Matrix Laser Clinics http://www.matrixlaserclinics.com/

2.
Acupuncture and related interventions for smoking cessation http://www.cochrane.org/reviews/en/ab000009.html

3.
Example of a pharmacy selling “antisnor” rings. At this link

4.
Jayasuriya, Anton.  Clinical Acupuncture. Medicina Alternativa International, Sri Lanka

5. Ernst E, Singh, S. Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. Bantam
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