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Can Acupuncture Be Explained Through Science?

By Rob Benhuri

People ask me all the time if I believe in science. This is a strange question, since science is the systematic study of nature using the scientific method. Science is not an end unto itself, nor is it an organized system of beliefs. As such, there really is no way to legitimately have or lack belief in science. One can only agree or disagree with the conclusions of certain scientific experiments. But I digress…

The more interesting question, and the one I think people really mean to ask me, is this: Can acupuncture be explained through science?

The answer is yes—but not yet. Remember that science is not a system of set beliefs. Rather, it is an ever-expanding process of understanding the world around us through testing hypotheses. Science eventually will be able to explain acupuncture if we continue to study it.

In recent years there have been a great number of attempts to explain acupuncture through a scientific lens. Like everyone on either side of this debate, I have strong opinions, but for the purposes of this article, suffice it to say that objectively speaking, we cannot explain acupuncture through science.

Now, with that in mind, is acupuncture still a valid form of healthcare?

Unequivocally, yes. Our current inability to explain acupuncture’s mechanism of action through the scientific method does not invalidate the experience of billions of people over thousands of years. In fact, this experience mandates scientific inquiry.

All scientific discoveries are predicated by experience and circumstantial evidence, which leads to eventual understanding. Through the observation of initial experiences comes a hypothesis, then an objective attempt to test that hypothesis in an appropriate setting. Experiences cannot be deemed invalid or “unscientific” just because they’re unexplainable within contemporary parameters.

Science could never have advanced at all if we only accepted observable phenomenon that conformed to our understanding at that time.

The classic example of this is gravity. Was it a mistake for every known civilization to utilize gravity before Newton explained it mathematically? Think of all the pyramids that never would have been built! What would we have thought of a skeptic who claimed gravity was unscientific and therefore should be avoided until double-blind clinical trials proved its efficacy?

Obviously, we’re better off for having accepted gravity as a reality and then opening our minds to determine how it works rather than insisting that gravity conform to pre-Newtonian ideas of the world.

Don’t like the gravity example? After all, gravity is a natural phenomenon while acupuncture is an intervention designed by human beings. In that case, let’s think about fire.

The controlled act of setting and sustaining fire, to early humans, was miraculous. Fire’s initial purpose most likely was to keep warm, but eventually the use of fire expanded to such things as easing pain, cooking, warding off predators, and providing light so that socialization could extend past sunset. Now imagine an early human refusing the benefits of fire until she could design a cave drawing that precisely captured the process of friction heating wood to its ignition temperature.

Where would we be today if our ancestors had demanded that fire be used only according to their understanding of the world rather than evolve that understanding to encompass a mysterious phenomenon?

While we clearly gained a lot from both gravity and fire before they were scientifically validated, it is also true that the benefits were compounded exponentially as scientific understanding deepened. I believe the same eventually will be said of acupuncture.

Acupuncturists and their patients should strongly support and participate in attempts to explain acupuncture through the scientific method. Not only will this allow us to more effectively deliver quality acupuncture to a greater number of people, but it also will advance science—and expand our understanding of the world.

Photo by Sara Calabro

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Comments

Erwin
Reply

Dear Rob, mr Benhuri,

From The Netherlands, thnx for your article. I spend some minutes to spread the article through twitter, and immediately, some people gave me feedback that acupuncture is indeed proven scientifically. The url i received is this one: http://apps.who.int/medicinedocs/en/d/Js4926e/5.html .
Can you comment on this, since it is indeed a statement by WHO. (see 3, point 1)
Thank your very much for your time and reply.

Erwin {from the Netherlands, and studying TCM…)

Robbie
Reply

Erwin,

Thank you so much for reading and spreading the word! The WHO report you are referring to is a consensus survey of different clinical trials. In other words, having read a lot of clinical trials, the WHO has decided that acupuncture works for the diseases listed. As far as I know, none of the trials were aimed at understanding “how” acupuncture works, only “if” it works on a given condition, so it doesn’t really advance our understanding.
Another thing to consider is, although we all love to read clinical trials that show acupuncture’s effectiveness, these trials are – for the most part – seriously flawed in their design. As I mentioned in my last post for AcuTake, there is no valid placebo for acupuncture, so the there is no real control group.

Sally Waterhouse Acupuncture
Reply

Hi Robbie

I’ve really enjoyed reading your take on this. I have to admit that I am an acupuncturist who strives to provide my patients with an explanation that they will be able to understand. Unfortunately for us as soon as the words ‘Qi’ or ‘essence’ are used a lot of people loose faith – and I say that with great hesitance as I also know that on the opposite side of the spectrum there are those that dedicate time and energy into understanding the concepts of TCM. For me personally there is a simple way of looking at it. Acupuncture is a science. If you look back to the ancient texts you will see that the ‘theories’ of Chinese medicine were developed using careful monitoring and observation of the results of testing hypothesis which in turn had been developed using experimental approaches derived by eastern medicine doctors and based upon their own reasoning and experience…. Not so different from today’s way of developing new forms of medicine hay?

The thing that has made it hard to identify acupuncture as a ‘scientific’ form of medicine in western terms is that chemicals are not involved (and chemicals basically define western medicine), but new research suggests that acupuncture can trigger the release of endorphins/serotonin (chemicals) so hopefully we are on our way to a greater level of recognition within the world of western medicine. Fingers crossed.

Liam
Reply

Thank you for the well-articulated article, but I take issue with the premise that “Science eventually will be able to explain acupuncture if we continue to study it.” I find this argument unsatisfying. To me this states that scientific studies have so far failed to observe any discernible benefits from acupuncture, and your justification for this is that science simply isn’t sufficiently advanced. In my opinion, this more convincingly suggests that acupuncture is not effective. Are there any more convincing arguments that acupuncture is effective, apart from anecdotal reports and personal conviction? I feel that this article is at its core an assertion of personal belief than an attempt to answer posed by its title.

Robbie
Reply

Hi Liam,

Thank you for your thoughtful response.

You are correct that this is an assertion of personal belief. You are also correct in suggesting that I have this belief due to anecdotal evidence, including personal experience as a practitioner and a patient. Further, you are correct (in my view, although this is definitely not a view shared by all) there is not sufficient objective evidence to “prove” acupuncture works.

This post is about explaining acupuncture’s mechanism of action through science – not validating it’s efficacy. For me (and millions like me) the overwhelming amount of anecdotal evidence is convincing enough to warrant serious study on the scientific principles involved in this medicine.

I understand your need to have objective proof before determining a mechanism of action, but i strongly believe the mechanism of action is needed first before a valid test can be conducted.

As it is there are many studies that clearly demonstrate acupuncture’s efficacy. But for every one of those there is another that demonstrates no efficacy at all. As I mentioned in my last post for AcuTake (Acupuncture as Placebo)) ALL of these studies are seriously flawed because we have not discovered a valid control to compare our results with. The best we can do right now is “sham acupuncture,” and if you are nearly as sharp as I believe you to be you will recognize immediately why this is not acceptable.

We have to understand the scientific principles that underlie acupuncture in order to develop a valid way of testing it’s efficacy. BTW (and I’m really going to draw the wrath of the crowd now!) it’s entirely possible that scientific study will show that acupuncture works solely through the power of positive thinking. I don’t believe this at all, but it’s possible. even if that’s the case, we can then make a valid study of efficacy based on those principles. We can’t make a valid study without knowing the principles involved.

Wow, I think I said the word, “efficacy” a hundred times in this one response. I think that should qualify me for an AcuTake T-Shirt.

Acupuncture Explained?
Reply

[…] to new ways. The following article is a thoughtful commentary trying to grapple with the question, “Can you explain acupuncture through science?” I believe that you will find it […]

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