The Problem with Acupuncture Research


Quite a lot of research has been done into acupuncture and it has concluded that it works. But of course this is something patients and practitioners could have told the researchers before they started. There has also been research into particular areas and protocols like the Paulus protocol[1] for fertility treatment. These help because they establish methods and point prescriptions that are shown to work in particular circumstances. But I am still not entirely convinced by research and try and keep an open mind about it for reasons I will try and explain. Research may benefit the researchers by re-enforcing their beliefs and those of others when they pass their findings on. But in order to benefit from that you have to join up in the collective belief that reality is shared and unchanging. I’m not saying we should never do that, but if we do we need to be aware of what is happening and how far we wish to go down that path. Another concern is that although you can argue that research may raise standards and help in specialised areas there are still questions about how it is funded. It costs money so who pays, who sets the criteria and what is their agenda? I would contend that a lot of research is so compromised by funding that it cannot really be trusted at all. Experiments can be set up to prove just about anything you like and I think acupunctures reputation has sometimes suffered as a result. Especially since most of the media seems to favour the sceptics view of alternative medicine. Research assumes that it can identify patterns that repeat themselves and through experimentation predict how effective a practice will be. This works well if you are engineering bridges, building computers or possibly even doing Liver function tests, but does it work for acupuncture? I know that we assume it does because there are multiple sources of acupuncture theory derived from research that most of us use. But can you really predict the behaviour of an intangible and mysterious energy like Qi or are we just concentrating on the bit of it that suits us? Researching what works is inherently part of our practice of course and we are doing it all the time. But to a practitioner of Modern Acupuncture its real value must be to show us that all the assumptions and beliefs we have are unreal. Remember too that all research (not only into acupuncture) relies upon researchers who are impressionable, unpredictable and uniquely individual human beings. The researchers bias and expectations will influence the experiments and this is a huge elephant in the room that is virtually always ignored. Funded research into acupuncture I have seen seems primarily concerned with trying to establish its validity on terms acceptable to people like Richard Dawkins.[2] But this runs the risk that we will dumb it down and end up with only Medical Acupuncture. No matter what we do we will never convince Professor Dawkins and his apologists of the existence of a wider consciousness. But we may be missing out on development of our Qi and our own conscious awareness if we allow ourselves to be constrained by their delusions.

Consequently you may have noticed that some research projects have concluded that “sham” acupuncture is just as effective or nearly as effective as “real” acupuncture. This could even be right, but what these projects do not include in their criteria are some of the things that matter the most. These are things such as a practitioners feel for Qi, their self-concept and with what level of conscious awareness they practice. We would also need to know what the expectations of the patients and the researchers are because this almost certainly has a huge impact on the outcomes. Anyone who says that it does not would need to show how we would eliminate that possibility. Acupuncture is about the energy and dynamics created between patient and practitioner but there is not much research done into that. It is very difficult to research anyway because since energy follows thought just thinking about doing anything will alter the outcomes. It is impossible to replicate a moment of existence or the exact energetic dynamic created in one treatment for comparison with another. Every person is unique, every moment is unique and now is always now and cannot be again. This renders acupuncture research to be of limited value even when the outcome is positive. What is past is past, it no longer exists and fixating on the idea that it will predict a future that does not exist either is distracting. In fact it is worse than that because it tends to close our minds to what is outside the parameters set by a scientific or evidence based approach. It puts in place a belief about what acupuncture can and cannot do that is actually completely meaningless. Please don’t let other peoples research saying that acupuncture does not work for a certain disease or condition stop you from treating it. These are just some of the problems you can have when you try and assess one view of the world using beliefs and assumptions formulated according to another. After all, there is a really simple way to know if your acupuncture works, ask the patients!


[1] A well-known study into the effects of acupuncture during the time of embryo transfer in IVF treatment.

[2] Author of “The selfish gene” and “The god delusion” a known critic of alternative medicine.

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