Acupuncture Doesn’t Work – In Any Culture

17 Mar

Acupuncture ClinicTime is pushing needles.

Needles may not seem like the best tool for treating stress, but acupuncture could be tapping into basic biological systems that keep stress under control.

Fine, it’s a peer-reviewed journal. It’s far from claiming acupuncture will cure a disease. But, it’s one study.

Acupuncture is a topic that comes up infrequently in my daily life, interacting with students or even family members, but how do you tell someone it’s bunk (via SGU #400) diplomatically?

Acupuncture does not work. The therapeutic interaction that surrounds the administration of acupuncture has the predictable non-specific effects, bias, and illusion that comprise observed placebo effects. The same would be true of any intervention, no matter how worthless or absurd. You can make up an unlimited number of fanciful treatments and substitute them for acupuncture and you would get the same non-specific effects. That does not mean that any of them work either.

Or, there’s this rebuttal.

Speaking of “non-specific effects, bias, and illusion”, compare these two experiences of treatment in South Korea offered by two expatriates.

First, “My Amazing Experience with Acupuncture in South Korea‘.

There I was in the doctor’s main office, on my back, my foot in his hands. The next thing I knew he actually inserted a different kind of needle directly into the knot on my ankle. I felt no pain but was surprised at the nature of this procedure. He informed me all would be well and I would experience a little redness and some itching but that the issue was all taken care of. I thanked him and his staff and paid an additional 12,000 won.

I made my way back to my school in plenty of time for my afternoon classes.

I experienced a little redness and some itching. The knot in my ankle disappeared in short order. I was completely healed-no more pain.

I would strongly suspect that I would have had an altogether different experience on every level had I sought out a western-style podiatrist. In any case, the treatment worked and opened my eyes to the ancient practice of acupuncture.

And then, there’s Chris in South Korea, who’s experience mirrors the first expat’s, but without the pleasant conclusion.

Once the doctor was free, he asked the expected questions: what is your complaint, is this your first time seeking treatment, and so on. This was all in the e-mail exchange between Sunny and I, mind you, so it became clear there had been little communication or preparation despite making an appointment. To his credit, the doctor pulled out an encyclopedia of medical conditions (like your grandfather’s doctor may have done), and told me everything I had already found out via the internet. He also clearly laid out the treatment, which was a nice contrast of never knowing what to expect.

After changing into an absolutely hideous outfit (think a jimjilbang outfit with wavy rainbow-colored lines), I got comfortable on a warm padded table and waited for the first round – apologies, but the name escapes me, and I wasn’t taking notes. A nurse entered with a cart, and attached four suction cup devices to my legs, one on either side of both calves. After turning them on, she left the room as the machine started up. Imagine, if you can, the feeling of a waterfall trying to give you a hicky – a tingling, suction sensation, complete with the feeling of water without actually getting wet. While the room was peaceful, the sensation was unusual enough to make relaxing difficult.

Next up, the acupuncture. I was secretly a little concerned, though the non-chalant side of me had agreed to take it as casually as possible. Take life as it comes at you, I thought. Before that, however, the doctor took a wooden hammer and stake, set the stake on my lower back, and told me to say something if it got to be too much pain. If a 1 on the pain scale is the a minor bug bite and a 10 falling off your motorbike and skidding along the pavement for a few hundred meters, this ’pounding of the stake’ was about a 5 – maybe a 6 when it reached its worst. I’m no wimp, but he found a few sensitive spots that grew more sensitive over time. This helps to release any blocked spots, or something along those lines. Creating a pain in the back to fix a pain in the foot? OK….

The acupuncture needles themselves were a 2 to 3, based entirely on their location. It was somewhat like a pinprick with a twist (what felt like a quarter turn to keep the needle in place) Most, like the ones in my feet, were almost unnoticeable once in place; with the back, I found that the more I moved, the more I felt them. That meant trying to read or do something else was out – then again, it is a Friday afternoon, and I’m here laying in a quiet, dark room, relaxing to some overhead classical music.

It was perhaps 15 minutes later when a nurse came in, wordlessly removed the needles, and left as quickly as she worked. The doctor then came back in to tape my feet and pass on the news that the acupuncture needs to be continued. This sounds suspicious – apparently one session isn’t enough to unblock the qi – and so I naturally asked for how long. Twice a week for two months, he said. At this point, I’m happy to have had the experience, but it feels more like a sales pitch than a prescription. The cost, considering the hour-plus of treatment, is a mere 11,000 won (about $11 USD) per session – apparently acupuncture is covered by nationalized Korean insurance. I walked out with tape on my foot (“the same sort that athletes use”), still gingerly walking as I did when I walked in. Maybe it really does take 16 sessions of acupuncture, each one lasting an hour-plus, to make a difference, but there was no difference felt from a single session – and I didn’t have an urge to spend almost $200 to figure out if it would work.

Is it for you? There’s no reason not to try it out – personally, I’ll be sticking with hot foot baths and massages.

It seems science and money are equally stringent debunking tools.



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