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Acupuncture, research and logic

Professor Ernst provides a tongue in cheek summary of the arguments and counter-arguments used during the last 100 years of clinical research into acupuncture.

Argument (A): The Chinese have used acupuncture for ~3000 years. If it were useless, it would not have survived.

Counter-argument (CA): The plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not data!

A: 1971 James Reston: it worked for me when I had to have surgery in China. So, it must be effective.

CA: Again: anecdotes tell us next to nothing about efficacy.

A: Now we have conducted our own trials comparing acupuncture with no such treatment. They show that acupuncture works.

CA: That could, of course, be because you have not adequately controlled for placebo effects and other sources of bias.

A: There is no credible placebo for acupuncture trials.

CA: Why not sticking needles into non-acupuncture points?

A: OK, We have now used this method and several similar ones as well. The trials tend to show little or no difference to real acupuncture, but this is easy to explain: stimulating non-acupuncture points is not inert; it leads to physiological effects.

CA: Have you tried non-penetrating sham-acupuncture devices?

A: We now have developed such devices and done those trials too. Again they show little difference. The reason, we think, is obvious: even light touch of an acupuncture point is an effective treatment.

CA: You seem to have arrived at the untestable hypothesis: acupuncture points are all over the body and, in real life, we touch them non-stop. Your research shows therefore that acupuncture has no clinical relevant effects.

A: Not at all – we know that acupuncture is effective. After all, it has been around since ~3000 years ago.

Professor Edzard Ernst is professor of complementary medicine at Peninsula Medical School

Professor Edzard Ernst