Anyone who provides treatment to patients for symptoms such as pain, nausea, sinus congestion, etc, has a burden of proof to meet. The most important burden of proof is that the treatment is safe – bearing in mind the medical ethical dictum, “first, do no harm.” On this score, acupuncture has proven to be very safe. Adverse events are extremely rare, and those that do occur are usually mild and self-limiting, for example bruising. Proper training for acupuncturists is essential, as the prevention of more serious risks, such as cross-infection or pneumothorax (a puncture of the chest wall which can lead to a collapsed lung), is an essential part of every properly trained practitioner’s skillset.
The second burden of proof concerns the efficacy of a treatment. Evidence based medicine stresses the use of certain study designs which are intended both to isolate the effects of a treatment from other confounding factors and to remove bias from the outcomes. Such bias can come from many sources, but one of the most important is that the expectations and attitudes of both the practitioner/doctor and the patient are known to have an affect on the outcomes of treatments even when such treatments contain no ingredients or involve no procedures that in themselves have been proven to be effective. This is called the “placebo effect” (if positive) or the “nocebo effect” (if negative). The evidence based medicine framework therefore requires that all drugs and other treatments show that their positive effect is greater than that of a placebo to a significant degree greater than chance in order to be considered to be effective.
Some minority voices among clinical researchers suggest that the placebo effect is worthy of study for its own sake, as every double-blinded random controlled clinical trial attests to its baseline effectiveness.
The body of clinical research into the effectiveness of acupuncture can be confusing and inconclusive. Many of the early studies (and some current ones) were not well designed, and suffered from small or non-random samples, which means that nothing useful can be concluded from them one way or another. A second problem that has remained difficult to address, even as research design improved, concerns the question of what would constitute a proper placebo in acupuncture. For research purposes, a placebo should be indistinguishable to both the patient and to the practitioner, from the “effective” treatment being tested. This allows for “blinding” to prevent personal expectations affecting outcomes. However, acupuncture is more like surgery than medicine, in that it is difficult to see how you could blind someone who is practicing a skill rather than administering a medicine. They surely know whether they have performed acupuncture (or surgery) in accordance with their training, or whether they’ve faked it in some way. And, as we’ve seen above, the expectations of the practitioner/doctor can introduce bias into the results just as much as the expectations of the patient.
Nevertheless, some interesting attempts have been made. One method is to compare acupuncture at traditionally chosen points with acupuncture at randomly chosen non-points. Another is to compare deep needling with shallow needling. One rather ingenious attempt to come up with an acupuncture placebo required the invention of a device which hides the needle (or a dummy) inside a casing. The patient feels a puncture at the skin level, and sees the casing depressed, but cannot perceive whether the needle penetrates the skin or not. The problem with all of these is that it has not been possible to show that the placebo technique is, in fact, inert. In fact a common complaint of practitioners trained in difference acupuncture styles, is that one person’s placebo acupuncture may be another person’s effective treatment. And so, it is perhaps not surprising to find that while both the effective acupuncture and the placebo acupuncture frequently perform significantly better than no treatment, in many studies there is little significant difference between them.
Some people interpret this to mean that acupuncture itself is effective, but that the style or location is far less important than the fact of getting the treatment. Others interpret this to mean that all of the treatment effect of acupuncture can be explained by the placebo effect, (because any improvements are seen against a background of no treatment) and that therefore it is not an effective treatment. The debate over interpretation will rage on, but hopefully researchers with a better understanding of how to design a proper study will soon add to the body of research.
Nevertheless, it would not be inconsistent with the current body of evidence, such as it is, to say that acupuncture, in any style, is a significant treatment option for the relief of pain, especially in situations where painkillers cannot be used. Many other research projects are suggestive of positive results with other symptoms and situations, improving the effectiveness of IVF treatment, reducing the need for interventions in labour, reducing addictive cravings, reducing the number and severity of heartburn events, to mention some examples, but further research is needed.
Acupuncture is not effective for everything, or for everyone. Your acupuncturist is not your primary healthcare provider. But for some people, in some situations, particularly pregnancy or gastric problems, which preclude the intake of certain medications, it can provide an especially welcome source of relief of pain. Many people also find it useful to clear sinus pain and congestion, for chronic functional diarrhea or constipation, for period pain, for some types of insomnia, and to reduce the effects of stress.