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Acupuncture has a long history. This well known and widely recognized method takes roots thousands of years ago in traditional Chinese medicine. Acupuncture practitioners often claim that with the correct approach the method can cure and treat a wide spectrum of physical illnesses and ailments. At least some of these claims were in fact confirmed by modern science, but the uncertainty about acupuncture persists.
Medical and general philosophy behind the approach - traditional and scientific views
The uncertainty begins with the philosophy of the method. The system maintains that life force or energy, known as Qi, flows in the body through energy pathways. These pathways are known as meridians, and they can represent a vital organ or group of organs that work together for the normal functioning of the body.
Acupuncture theory believes that health and well-being are results of the adequate and sufficient flow of this energy while its alteration or imbalance leads to disease.
Balance requires achieving harmony between the innate forces of nature, Yin and Yang. Once an imbalance occurs, goals must be set to restore it through acupuncture. The method used by acupuncturists is to insert fine needles at points on the body along the meridians. This is the place where the energy path is closest to the surface of the skin.
The problem is that modern science cannot see any evidences that would confirm the existence of Qi, meridians or Yin or Yang. Various theories that try to interpret traditional views in modern scientific terms do not sound very convincing.
Empirical evidence in favor of acupuncture appears to be compelling
The use of acupuncture for a range of medical conditions has been formally recognized by such leading institutions as the US-based National Institute of Health, World Health Organization, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, as well as the UK National Health Service (NHS).
The recognition has garnered criticism from several scientists who remain skeptical about the efficacy and safety of the practice.
Many primary care physicians do not even have the solid understanding of the theory and practice that embody this alternative healing. However, there are successful treatments and they include, for example, pain in the neck, head and back regions.
What is the scientific evidence for and against acupuncture?
Evidence that acupuncture works
By inserting fine needles into defined skin points, acupuncture has been used to relieve tension-type headaches and reduce the frequency of their episodes.
Comments have been carried out on 11 clinical trials conducted on this matter. Between them, 2 large-scale trials were carried out by dividing the patients into 2 groups. One group received only basic care, while the other had acupuncture sessions.
Forty-seven percent of the patients who received acupuncture sessions reported a 50% reduction in the number of days they suffered from headaches compared to only 16% in the other group. Six trials even compared true acupuncture with sham acupuncture interventions where the inappropriate points were inserted or had insufficient skin penetration. The results revealed that fifty percent of the patients given real acupuncture experienced 50% fewer headache days compared to just 41% in the other group.
These studies conclude that acupuncture is a good alternative for the treatment of tension-type headaches.
The researchers came to the same favorable conclusion when acupuncture is performed to relieve pain in patients with osteoarthritis affecting the knee.
The effect of acupuncture on lower back pain has also been investigated. Back pain is one of the most common reasons people have to seek medical attention. For the past 10 years, researchers have witnessed the use of acupuncture to relieve lower back pain, and its effectiveness was re-evaluated in 33 randomized clinical trials.
Subjects had acute or chronic low back pain. One group of participants received sham acupuncture while the other group received real acupuncture. At the end of the study, pain relief was felt by both groups. However, the result was still conclusive for people with acute back pain, because data were not statistically significant (only a small number of participants were recruited). On the other hand, the findings received positive feedback for the practice of acupuncture in the treatment of chronic low back pain. While the study offered positive results, the evidence cannot be substantiated to establish the claim that acupuncture is more effective than other active treatments commonly requested by patients.
Evidence that acupuncture "doesn't work"
While some studies affirm its efficacy, a large systematic review of 13 clinical trials concluded otherwise. These clinical trials evaluated the effect of both deception and real acupuncture. The findings from these studies revealed negligible pain relief in both cases. On the other hand, the claim lacked clinical evidence. It cannot be determined whether the pain relief was brought about by the procedure itself or by the pleasant psychological effect of the offered procedure.
The effect of acupuncture in treating other conditions such as shoulder pain has also been reviewed. Nine studies that dealt with shoulder pain caused by inflammation of the shoulder joint, as well as the muscles that surround them, have been investigated. The studies included more than 500 people who suffered from shoulder pain.
At the end of the study, although acupuncture offers short-term pain relief that may last 14-30 days, the evidence presented remains insufficient to support or refute the efficacy of acupuncture for treating shoulder pain.
Does acupuncture really work?
Uncertain conclusions produced by the most carefully designed scientific studies leave anyone trying to answer this question unsure. Some studies provide strong support for acupuncture, but unfortunately, it is very difficult to exclude the influence of the placebo effect when the subject as acupuncture is investigated. It is well known that pain is often affected by the placebo effect: if we think that a therapeutic intervention should work, it tends to produce at least some pain relief.
From a purely pragmatic perspective, it can be said that it doesn't really matter what is behind the associated acupuncture pain relief as soon as it can be achieved. Some conditions are more likely to be successfully treated by acupuncture. If a clear improvement can be achieved, it is probably not so important if this is the result of some specific therapeutic mechanism or simply a work of our imagination.
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