What’s happening in your body during acupuncture?

Photo by Theo Heimann/Getty Images

Thousands of years after acupuncture was invented, controversy remains over whether the Chinese traditional medicine technique works. While previous trials have shown mixed results, a new study shows that, at the very least, those needles really do cause something to happen in our bodies.

Scientists have long been skeptical about the value of acupuncture, though practitioners have questioned whether the acupuncture in many studies was done “correctly.” Other trials suggest that acupuncture does “work,” but only as a placebo. In a study published this week in the journal Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, researchers measured the biological effect of the procedure. They found that if you do acupuncture correctly, your body releases more nitric oxide at the points where the needles are inserted. The nitric oxide increases blood flow and triggers your body to release natural anesthetics, which can create either warming or cooling sensations. (The study was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health.)

The scientists inserted acupuncture needles into 25 people, ages 18 to 60 and both men and women. Then they tried two different methods. In one, they twisted the needles for two minutes every five minutes, for a total of 20 minutes. In the other, they applied electrical heat for 20 minutes.

Using a device that can measure the molecules in specific skin regions, researchers were able to detect the nitric oxide being released at these acupuncture sites for both methods.

There are caveats, as always. The sample size is small, and these results should be considered in light of more skeptical research as well. Next, the team wants to do further research to understand the underlying cellular mechanisms and the differences between the two techniques.

Comments

nothing is happening to my body but my wallet becomes thinner with less money inside

Which makes your other problems seem less important by comparison to making back the money you just spent.

Acupuncture works!

Not surprisingly, the "study" was performed without a control group.

In this case a control group would consist in people lying down and doing or experiencing nothing. I’m not sure how pertinent it would be.

A control group is not people lying down and doing nothing. It’s people doing everything the same except the variable of interest (in this case, real acupuncture). That’s how you know that the variable is what’s causing any changes, and not any of the infinite other things that can affect results.

The study did at least do a "control side" by doing the acupuncture at different points on the same person’s body. But it’s no replacement for an actual control group. Maybe just telling people you were about to poke at a certain part of their body, or a massage, or slapping it with a dead fish, would have the same effect. Without a control group, we have no idea. So as with most studies of alternative medicine that claim to find an effect, it doesn’t tell us much, and better-controlled studies tend to find no effect at all.

slapping it with a dead fish

Lol’d

In this study, rubbing and electrifying them without needles might he a control condition. But this is really the weird part. They didn’t find an effect for acupuncture here, they found an effect of acupuncture plus electrifying or twisting the needles. Stuff they don’t normally do with acupuncture. Also, acupuncture is more than just stuffing needles into someone’s body. It’s supposed to be stuffing needles on specific lines of the body, otherwise everyone with properly cleaned needles could just do it (which I firmly believe). So another good control condition would be performing the exact same thing, but on random places instead of places where accupuncturists claim they should be put. No difference? Then no need for accupuncturists, just buy a couple of sterile needles at the drugstore and do it yourself.

I thought about this as well and ruled it out because any results could be blamed on the procedure being done incorrectly. An equivalent analogy would be instead of a control group taking a sugar pill they are given a dose of some other medicine. It might not do anything or it might provide some benefit or a negative result. I think the control has to be where the person thinks they are getting stuck but they are not actually stuck or the persons response is worthless.

I’m sure they placed the needles in accordance with traditional acupuncture locations. I just don’t think it was specifically mentioned in this bite sized article. If not then what is the point?
The acupuncture skepticism isn’t merely the belief or disbelief that inserting needles relieves pain/lowers stress/etc, it’s about whether or not you believe our body has any sort of "Qi" and that we can tap into that via body meridians.

The best control group here would be a group that undergo conventional treatment.

Whether a measurable effect can be demonstrated or not is irrelevant – any practitioner should be offering the best treatment based on clinical evidence to their patient. For acupuncture (or any alternative treatment) to have any value, it must demonstrate that it is at least as good as or better than the current best practice for at least some pre-defined group of patients and conditions.

Other studies have used test subjects who aren’t aware of what acupuncture should feel like, and instead applied a slight pressure to the skin like a finger tap.

The control group could have received placebo acupuncture using toothpicks.

Or just blindfold all the participants and just pinch and poke the control group

Well I passed out the first time I had acupuncture done on me. That was the first time I was unconscious without anaesthetics as well. So it certainly does something. Not sure if it helps though.

Cum hoc ergo propter hoc.

The two things happening at the same time doesn’t mean one happened because of the other. You might have passed out because of stress for the idea that oodles of needles were bing put into you.

Well, that’s still technically one causing the other…

No it’s not. For A to cause B, You also need that B wouldn’t have happened if A hadn’t happened. The thoughts caused the fainting, not the acupuncture. Had the acupuncture been present but not the thoughts, the fainting would not have happened. Had the acupuncture not been present but the thoughts were, the fainting would have happened. These two together clearly show that in the scenario described before, one (accupuncture) is clearly NOT causing the other (fainting).

Well, it’s certainly possible the feeling of the needles caused a vasovagal reaction that led to the fainting. Very common with folks who are sensitive to needles.

I’m not saying acupuncture actually does anything as far as its stated benefits. But it’s certainly possible that it caused the fainting. Had he not had the acupuncture, he would not have fainted. That’s causation.

Had he not had the acupuncture, he would not have fainted is indeed causation. But That is not something we know for sure. We don’t know that he wouldn’t have fainted if the accupuncturist had given him little prods with toothpicks instead.

I wasn’t stressed and I’m not afraid of needles. But yes, theoretically it could have been psychosomatic as well, although I don’t believe that was the case since I’m on the other end of the hypochondriac scale – I’d probably die from a terminal illness before I believe I actually suffer from it.

Scott Forstall’s interview the other week talking about how Steve Jobs saved his life (too bad he couldn’t save his own) with hiring someone who did acupuncture on him was definitely one of the highlights of everything he said. What’s even more interesting is that he said he wasn’t a believer with this stuff but it was the only thing that cured him and some doctors thought it was a miracle and the others thought it was just a crazy coincidence.

To add to your comment, Forstall went on to detail the difference in doctors that acknowledged results vs. ones that didn’t. He observed that all of the older doctors with more medical experience were open to the idea of the acupuncture curing him while the younger ones fresh out of medical school wouldn’t even consider the acupuncture as a contributing factor in his rapid recovery. interesting.

Probably because when the older doctors were in school, there wasn’t yet a mountain of evidence that shows that acupuncture/acupressure does nothing. Doctors don’t keep up with the newest research unless it pertains to the kind of stuff they normally work on.

More like the older ones who have had a lot of real world battlefield experience knows that there’s a lot we don’t know about the human body. Just because you don’t understand how something works doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work. Older people would have experienced a lot of inexplicable things over the years. The young ones only knows what the text books taught them.

The thing with Chinese medicinal practice such as acupuncture and cupping is that they can’t be proven to the term of western testing standard. It all grinds to the very basic of western testing that required a control sample to be measured against tested sample. How do you take a control sample when you can’t even do a placebo of acupuncture or cupping?
With western medicine it’s easy to give placebo pill and check against the actual medicine whether it works or not.

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