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What evidence is there for or against acupuncture being an effective treatment?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 45 down vote accepted

Acupuncture is based on the belief that diseases are caused by blockages of your qi, which flows in so-called meridians in your body. By sticking needles into those meridians you can manipulate the flow of qi and eliminate the blockages.

The concepts of qi and meridians are unscientific, they date back to a time where there was no scientific method and knowledge of human anatomy was practically nonexistant. There is no evidence that qi and meridians exist at all.

Sticking needles into your body still could have some effect, although it will have nothing to do with your qi. There are tons of clinical studies about acupuncture, but few conclusive results. A major problem is that controlling for the placebo effect is complicated, as people usually notice whether you stick needles into them or not. Some of the newer and better clinical trials used fake acupuncture needles that do not penetrate the skin. Another often used method is to stick the needles outside of the "proper" acupuncture points as a control.

Acupuncture is believed to be helpful in a large variety of conditions, I'll take pain relief as an example as it is somewhat plausible that sticking needles into your skin could have an effect on the perception of pain.

A review from 2009 in BJ concludes:

A small analgesic effect of acupuncture was found, which seems to lack clinical relevance and cannot be clearly distinguished from bias. Whether needling at acupuncture points, or at any site, reduces pain independently of the psychological impact of the treatment ritual is unclear.

My conclusion is that acupuncture is just a particularly effective placebo.

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FWIW, acupuncture advocates claim that even sticking them outside the proper points has some therapeutic effect. If that were the case, you may as well do it yourself rather than pay someone to do it. –  Andrew Grimm Mar 6 '11 at 22:34
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@Andrew Grimm: as long as sticking needles involve the risk of you accidentally puncturing a major arteries, I don't think anyone without any knowledge of human physiology should attempt acupuncture on their own. –  Lie Ryan Mar 20 '11 at 18:07
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Well, I wouldn't equate claims about acupuncture being effective with it being correctly explained by its practitioners. The nonexistence of qi and meridians wouldn't make a difference more than us argumenting wether our model of an electron "is really" an electron. In fact, I find that to be a straw man argument from the woo community. They claim that we skeptics are stuck on the fact that we can't explain, trying to smokescreen that we point out that the EFFECTIVENESS is undocumented. ALL models are WRONG, SOME models are USEFUL. –  Tormod Apr 30 '11 at 9:13
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"My conclusion is that acupuncture is just a particularly effective placebo" - How could one conclude anything if the results are unclear? –  dg123 Feb 26 '14 at 21:49
    
Replace conclusion with belief, I think that's the intended meaning, that it's his personal belief, which is what all reasoning leads to :). –  Vijay Feb 27 '14 at 5:03

It seems to be highly variable and condition-specific, although this latest review of reviews has some interesting results (mind you that's in paediatric population):

Efficacy and safety of acupuncture in children: An overview of systematic reviews. (highlighting is mine)

We included 24 systematic reviews, comprising 142 RCTs with 12787 participants. Only 25% (6/24) reviews were considered to be high quality (10.00 ± 0.63). High-quality systematic reviews and Cochrane systematic reviews tends to yield neutral or negative results (P=0.052, 0.009 respectively). The efficacy of acupuncture for five diseases (Cerebral Palsy (CP), nocturnal enuresis, tic disorders, amblyopia and pain reduction) is promising.

It was unclear for Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy (HIE), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), mumps, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), asthma, nausea/vomiting and myopia. Acupuncture is not effective for epilepsy. Only six reviews reported adverse events (AEs) and no fatal side effects were reported.

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Something tells me that this 3-day-old preview of a paper will be getting a lot of critical attention over the next couple of months. –  Oddthinking May 10 at 0:41

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