Acupuncture has a rich tradition of treating all sorts of diseases and conditions but we (in science, the medical and scientific community, aka “western medicine”) are only scratching the surface of how acupuncture seems to work. This is partly because we are employing fairly new tools that were not at our disposable a few decades ago, let alone thousands of years ago when acupuncture was born. It is also mostly due to the limitations of clinical research. We have only begun to apply rigid statistical methods to figure out how drugs work in medicine. The revolution of “Evidence – Based Medicine” or EBM was still largely a new practice when I was in medical school in the late 1990s.
Acupuncture on the other hand, relied on accurate record keeping of the techniques, the ideas employed and most importantly, the observations made. It is what I consider to be a purely empirical system. Historically, philosophy and tradition sought to explain what was observed with acupuncture and by that alone, it is impossible to prove or disprove how acupuncture works from the Traditional Chinese Medicine point of view. We can only test the observations. So for instance, if it has been observed that Urinary Bladder point 40 (UB – 40) can help with back pain, there is no way to test the theory of in TCM which explains that pain occurs when there is a pathological blockage of your chi at the precise location you feel pain. Acupuncture releases or unblocks this path so that chi can flow freely in its respective meridian channels (running throughout your body) and ideally, be in perfect balance with nature and the universe around you.
Instead, Western Evidence based medicine (EBM) can only seek to get hundreds if not thousands of back pain patients, apply UB-40 to a certain group and then apply a “sham point” or placebo to another group and then analyze the statistically and clinically significant results to possibly “prove” that UB-40 can indeed help with back pain. That design takes millions of dollars to carry out but it is vital and necessary to carry out in order to justify using acupuncture for back pain treatment. What about acupuncture for fertility and allergies or heart disease? From an evidence based medicine point of view, there is not enough evidence but this DOES NOT mean it is unproven. It simply means we lack the tools and resources to study every single condition that acupuncture CAN and CANNOT treat. Personally, I still use acupuncture for many conditions outside pain and there are different philosophies in TCM to guide the acupuncturists to choose the appropriate points. I developed the course, not to prove or disprove the philosophies of TCM.I chose to present the current medical and scientific models of how we currently think acupuncture works for pain management, neurology, orthopedic, rehabilitation and musculoskeletal medicine because western medicine is only scratching the surface with the fairly new tools at our disposal. It may seem limited in scope there is no boundary to define how far we can go with technology and how we can truly study acupuncture. This chapter is every bit about how much we know and how much we don’t know but I focus here on the application of acupuncture as it is studied from an evidence-based perspective. With that, the most well studied clinical application of acupuncture is in the area of pain management. As we shall see, the discoveries made may pave the way for future explorations of how acupuncture may or may not work for certain clinical condition.
So this is the essence of “Medical” Acupuncture – It doesn’t mean you have to be a medical doctor to apply or practice it. It means you are: 1) maintaining an open mind 2) utilizing Medical and Scientific language to communicate how acupuncture MAY work , 3) Using current technological tools tools to enhance our understanding of acupuncture, 4) respecting the tradition and history of acupuncture but realizing the EMPIRICISM is more important than philosophy. At the end of the day, we will use what we feel “works” for the patient. Trying to understand “how” it works is less important.
This blog is dedicated to expanding our medical understanding of acupuncture by presenting landmark case studies, clinical trials and meta-analyses from respected peer-reviewed journals to educate health professionals on acupuncture. As you will see the breadth of the available medical and scientific literature is robust but so much more needs to be done! This is attitude of the modern Medical Acupuncturist.