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Research Questions

By Sara Calabro

The inspiration for this editorial came from a comment: “Do you have any research references backing up your statement that acupuncture can help with weight loss?” Since it’s a question I get a lot—not necessarily in reference to weight loss but to claims in general made on AcuTake—I thought it was worth addressing with a full post.

The answer is no.

It’s not that studies haven’t shown that acupuncture can help with weight loss—and back pain, and headaches, and arthritis, and hot flashes, and many other conditions. But AcuTake was not created to aggregate, promote or explain acupuncture research. Journals do that. Our intent is to offer information and ideas—based on clinical experience, books, and conversations with thought leaders, acupuncturists and patients—that help people think about health in different, open-minded ways.

Acupuncture research is an important source of information, too. But study findings are not definitive answers, and yet when they’re made available, many of us are quick to accept them as the final word. They become a way of disconnecting from the health process, of letting someone else tell us what we need. AcuTake encourages people to think for themselves about what health means to them.

There is a pervasive belief that for a medical intervention to be effective, it must be validated by controlled clinical trials. This is simply not true. Nor is the opposite true, that if something is validated by clinical trials then it’s effective.

A controlled clinical trial is just one way of looking at efficacy—and a profoundly imperfect one. The fact is that medical research, including studies on everything from acupuncture to ACE inhibitors to arthroscopic surgery, is riddled with dysfunction and inconsistencies. The issues run the gamut from mildly concerning to deeply disturbing, but all create results that are biased in one way or another. Mainstream media is finally starting to speak up about this. The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Newsweek have all recently run articles exposing the flaws of modern medical research.

An over-investment in medical research, and reluctance to acknowledge its limitations, is a devastating problem. It’s the reason The New York Times, the nation’s supposed paper of record, runs a story on chronic pain and doesn’t even mention acupuncture. It’s the reason our government and insurance companies pay thousands of dollars for back surgery but won’t pay a couple hundred for acupuncture. It’s the reason many doctors disparage the things they don’t understand instead of just saying “I don’t know.” These repercussions cost our healthcare system billions of dollars and prevent people from accessing therapies that could drastically improve their quality of life.

The pursuit of answers through science is crucial. It’s to thank for many medications and technologies that have extended and improved life for countless patients. But when that pursuit gets so narrowly focused that it discourages people from thinking openly about health and accessing therapies that resonate for them, it becomes problematic. This, unfortunately, is the place at which we have arrived.

It’s time to start asking questions. As patients demand more explanation about their treatments, healthcare providers will be forced to better understand the therapies they recommend. To do this, they’ll need to dig into the research, which will cause them to start asking some questions of their own. This probing will inevitably help crumble the walls of tradition and secrecy that surround medical research and bias treatment decisions and insurance coverage.

Until then, relying on research to make healthcare decisions is just another form of indiscriminately following convention. Health is a personal state of being, which means it’s different for everyone. Achieving health is not about utilizing a therapy because some study said you should. It’s about becoming aware of the options, deciding what feels right for you, and participating in the outcomes.

In the endeavor of taking control of our health, here’s what we’re up against: an influential medical establishment, a wealthy pharmaceutical industry, corrupt insurance companies, a divided government, and sensationalized, oft-misinformed media messages. It is an uphill battle and understandable why so many people choose to check out. But taking responsibility for our health is the most important commitment we can make. It is a literal matter of life or death.

Photo by Sara Calabro


Marjorie O'Connor

I have read a lot of acupuncture research and most of it is horrible. This is because it is often not done by acupuncturists and because it uses the same points to treat conditions in each patient, which East Asian medicine would never do because it treats the system as a whole.

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