Acupuncture Still Looks Like Quackery

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Xinhua is gloating about a flawed study purporting to prove a acientific basis for acupuncture. Acupuncture still looks no better than the placebo effect. Elizabeth Armstrong Moore goes even further, and offers a nice summary before slipping over the edge of the cliff.

Nanna Goldman…[and her] team, which presents its work this week at Purines 2010 in Barcelona, inserted and rotated needles into the tender paws of mice and found that the biochemical blockade of adenosine soothed the mice about as much as giving them drugs that boost adenosine levels.

Xinhua is gloating about a flawed study purporting to prove a acientific basis for acupuncture. Acupuncture still looks no better than the placebo effect. Elizabeth Armstrong Moore goes even further, and offers a nice summary before slipping over the edge of the cliff.

Nanna Goldman…[and her] team, which presents its work this week at Purines 2010 in Barcelona, inserted and rotated needles into the tender paws of mice and found that the biochemical blockade of adenosine soothed the mice about as much as giving them drugs that boost adenosine levels.

More specifically, both during and immediately following an acupuncture treatment, the level of adenosine in the tissue near the needles was 24 times greater than before the treatment. So acupuncture may relieve pain by simply tricking bodies into thinking there’s been minor tissue trauma.

And yet another pin in the proverbial coffin for skeptics like myself: The researchers even found that in “adenosine receptor knock-out mice” not equipped with the adenosine receptor, acupuncture had no effect.

So what do revelations about a 4,000-year-old technique have to do with modern technology? The better we understand exactly how needles relieve pain, the more likely we are to invent modern acupuncture kits that are affordable, portable, and safe.

From one study to rolling out a commercial product? e!Science News has a longer explanation of why the procedure works. Yet, Ed Yong quickly punctures the hype.

Many trials have demonstrated that acupuncture does have some pain-relieving effects – that is not in doubt. And as Steven Novella notes, unlike things like homeopathy or reiki, with acupuncture “something physical is actually happening… so it is therefore not impossible that a physiological response is happening”. But the big questions are whether this effect is genuine of nothing more than a placebo.

To answer that, clinical trials have used sophisticated methods, including “sham needles”, where the needle’s point retracts back into the shaft like the blade of a movie knife. It never breaks the skin, but patients can’t tell the difference from a real, penetrating needle. Last year, one such trial (which was widely misreported) found that acupuncture does help to relieve chronic back pain and outperformed “usual care”. However, it didn’t matter whether the needles actually pierce the skin, because sham needles were just as effective. Nor did it matter where the needles were placed, contrary to what acupuncturists would have us believe.

…There has been so much previous work in this area that the question “How does acupuncture work?” is better replaced by “Why are acupuncture’s effects largely indistinguishable from those of sham treatments?” The new study suggests some answers but it seems unfortunate to me that Goldman didn’t include any sham-needle controls in her experiments.

Moore at least failed Yong’s test, “…whether your average health journalist will know how this study fits into the bigger picture – whether it vindicates the use of acupuncture or whether it actually fits with a skeptical stance.” I might add, how ridiculously Korean newspapers and quacks will react to this “vindication”?

Filed under: Science Tagged: acupuncture, medicine



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