Debunking Acupuncture Myths – Part 1

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac

Acupuncture and Chinese medicine to some, are as mysterious as the cosmos. There are many “myths” about acupuncture and Chinese medicine out there, and as a result, there is a lot of misinformation and people making claims that are simply not true. We live in an age where we have access to unprecedented amounts of information. The sheer volume can be overwhelming, and it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. As an acupuncturist, I see my job as not only to treat people with all the tools in my Chinese medicine toolkit, but to also be an ambassador and try to share what this medicine is, how it works and how it can heal mind, body and soul.

In my career I have had to deal with many people who think that acupuncture and Chinese medicine are not “real” medicine. I cannot tell you how many people at parties and other social events want to tell me how silly they think it is that anyone would study something like Chinese medicine.

I decided a long time ago that it was not my job to convince anyone how awesome acupuncture is. I feel about acupuncture the way I feel about most everything; I am grateful to have the choice to use it, or not. It is something that has helped and continues to help me, and so I use it. If people are against acupuncture, they should not have any. There are many healing modalities out there and every one of us has the choice of which ones we want to use. Where it becomes upsetting is when someone is told that what they believe in is WRONG and that it should not be allowed to be used by anyone. This is the line for me. It takes an evolved person to be able to step outside of themselves and see the bigger picture. If you think something does not benefit you, does not mean that it may not benefit others.

Over the years I have come across a lot of articles that represent the view that Chinese medicine is not “real” medicine and that its practitioners are a bunch of quacks. This article is a good example:

Quackery and Mumbo-Jumbo in the U.S. Military

It seems this is a very controversial subject (as you can see from the 1400+ sassy comments). Can you guess which comments are mine…?

Myth: Acupuncture Doesn’t Work and There is no Evidence to Support It.

Truth: Acupuncture does work and there are many scientific studies that support its efficacy.

I find this is a big one with the left brainers. Just as there has always been a disparity between science and religion, it seems there will be friction between medical “science” and any medicine that is not able to be “proven” adequately by scientific methods.

If acupuncture didn’t work, acupuncturists would be out of business, and the medicine certainly wouldn’t have survived for thousands of years in China. Acupuncture has been successful in treating a myriad of conditions. The goal of acupuncture is returning the body to a state of equilibrium and health so that symptoms disappear. The severity of the imbalance is reflected in the severity of the symptoms. Things like cancer are a serious imbalance or, more often than not, one that is long standing. The body is not being “cured” by the acupuncture, the acupuncture is allowing the body to cure itself.

For me, being able to say something “works” comes from direct experience. Research studies are one thing, but I want to try it for myself. I am an experience kind of girl. If someone tells me about a food I have never eaten, I don’t want to read about it, I want to TASTE it.

This is my experience with acupuncture:

As a teenager I was plagued by menstrual cramps. Western doctors told me I had to just suck it up. They gave me very strong pain meds that helped with the pain, but made me feel like a vegetable and I was unable to function. After suffering for years doctors finally suggested I have a hysterectomy (removing the uterus). I was 15 years old. This caused me to look for alternatives, and I discovered acupuncture. After a few months of acupuncture and herbs, the cramps that had plagued me for years were gone.

Evidence is out there. For me, the evidence is in my experience, both personally and professionally. I have seen it work, over and over again. Everyday in practice, I see people get better with acupuncture.

There are many scientific studies that illustrate the effectiveness of acupuncture. They are being published all the time. I have included a comprehensive list of current research and studies at the end of this article.

*Note – in the article mentioned at the beginning of this piece – Quackery and Mumbo-Jumbo in the U.S. Military – the author states that there is no evidence to support acupuncture’s efficacy. In my comment, I state that this is absolutely untrue. This was countered by 2 other people asking me to cite examples as they thought I was “making things up”. I cited 31 studies. There were no more comments. :)

Myth: Acupuncture is based on Qi, Which Doesn’t Exist Because it Can’t be Proven.

Truth: Qi does exist. I know it, because I can feel it.

Qi is at the very heart of Chinese medicine. It can be loosely translated as energy and is the life force by which all our physiological processes take place. It cannot be seen, weighed or measured. Because of this, it is difficult to “prove” in the scientific sense.

An acupuncturist spends years studying qi. Because acupuncture is energy work, an intimate knowledge of qi is essential. We spend years developing a sensitivity to it. We must learn to detect it, and use our needles to manipulate it to bring the body back to health. Pain is TCM is considered a stagnation or blockage of qi. Acupuncture is used to break up the stagnation and allow the qi to flow through the body freely.

In school we studied qi gong with a master from China. He took us to the park and asked us to stand next to a tree. We took our hands and held them a few inches away from the bark, trying to feel the trees qi. Most of us didn’t feel anything at first, but after practicing, and honing our sensitivity, we began to feel it in plants and living things everywhere.

I can feel someones qi when they walk into the room. I can tell if they are happy, or frustrated or having a bad day. I am very sensitive to qi. If you were to ask me if I could prove it, I would say that it isn’t something I have to prove, I can FEEL it. If someone doesn’t believe it exists, I would ask them to get onto the table and I will do an acupuncture point which will allow them to feel their qi. For me, this is the best way to explain what qi is. We are all made of qi. It is what keeps us alive, and for anyone who doesn’t believe in qi but is open enough to try, I would say have an acupuncture or qi gong treatment and you will be able to feel what qi is.

Any meditator, yoga practitioner or student of the martial arts knows what qi is. They are hyper aware of their qi because it is important to their practice. So it is not just acupuncturists that know qi, it is anyone with a sensitivity to their bodies and the world around them.

For those who are more scientifically minded I would say this. Qi is not something that can be seen or measured. Just like faith, pain or gravity. Yet religions of the world are built on faith, millions of people every year suffer with pain and the population of the planet is kept firmly on the ground thanks to gravity.

I have always been aware that there are things in (and out of) this world that are beyond my comprehension. They are bigger than I am. And thank gods, because, as a person, I am small. If we could know everything that was, how boring life would be. One of the best things about life is the wonder of it. Discovering new things, having new experiences. I don’t think science can explain everything, and I am glad there are things out there that are yet to be explained.

Myth: Acupuncture is Dangerous

Truth: Acupuncture is Very Safe.

Acupuncture is quite safe. In all my years of having acupuncture, and my subsequent years treating patients, I think the worst thing that has ever happened was a tiny bruise here and there. I have never killed anybody, made them pass out, and to my knowledge, no one has ever heard screaming coming from my office.

I sometimes read about people who say that there is research to prove that acupuncture causes deaths and serious injuries. I have looked up several studies. In one study I found there have been a total of 95 cases of “serious adverse effects” and 5 reported cases of death attributed to acupuncture. When you dig a little deeper, you find that these numbers are world wide and a grand total from the last 60 years.

There are some things that can happen when having an acupuncture treatment that you should be aware of. They are:

~ bruising (hematoma)
~ a feeling of heat or distension at the needle site
~ nausea (it is good to eat a little something before a treatment)
~ headache
~ bleeding (a drop or two may come out when the needle is withdrawn)

Some pleasant side effects often include:

~ an increase in energy
~ improved sleep
~ a sense of relaxation and wellbeing
~ an increased sensation in the body
~ a feeling of self awareness

Dangerous things can happen and have been reported from people who have received acupuncture. Things like pneumothorax (a punctured lung) can happen if the practitioner is not skilled. Needles can break and sometimes an acupuncturist can forget and leave a needle in after a treatment. These are extremely rare. Of course, these things can happen, but they largely depend on the skill of the practitioner. Make sure that you are seeing someone who has completed a certified program, is licensed and insured to practice acupuncture.

In all my years receiving and giving acupuncture treatments, I have never experienced any of these negative effects. The most common negative effects in my experience is occasionally slight bruising, and sometimes, when you remove a needle, a drop of blood comes with it. The effects that are far more common however, are that people become so relaxed that they fall asleep on the table, and they feel wonderful after a treatment and the problems they were coming to see you for are completely resolved. Other symptoms that they were not even coming in for often disappear as the body is rebalanced with acupuncture and many people find that they have an increase in energy and clarity of thought as a result of their treatments.

With any medical procedure there are risks. Everyone must weigh them and decide if the risks are worth it. In my opinion, acupuncture is an extremely safe and effective treatment with an experienced practitioner and the benefits far outweigh the risks.

Myth: Using Acupuncture in the Military is Dangerous for the Troops

Truth: Acupuncture is safe, inexpensive and without side effects = Better for the troops.

I have noticed lately some articles talking about the military using acupuncture for their troops to combat the effects of pain, traumatic brain injury and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). There has been a lot of controversy about this issue, and the article cited earlier is a sad example of how destructive misinformation can be. I was particularly fascinated with the thread of comments that appeared (more than 1400 of them) throughout the day. And even though there are a lot of nay sayers, I thought that overall, it was a thoughtful discussion and was encouraged that there was an open dialogue on the subject.

The thing that is disturbing about this article is the lack of information, or misinformation that is presented. The other disturbing thing is that this person is suggesting that acupuncture be removed from the program because she thinks it is ineffective, a waste of taxpayers money and dangerous for the troops. I propose something that is perhaps more dangerous to the troops. WAR. A few needles in comparison to the atrocities these soldiers face in battle seems like a risk worth taking. And I am sure that receiving acupuncture treatment is completely voluntary.

The comments in this thread range from one end of the spectrum to the other. And it is wonderful that we are able to exercise the freedom to say what we think. I am thankful to the bravery of every man and woman who puts their lives on the line every day so that we all may enjoy that freedom. I am not a supporter of war, but I do support freedom.

My response to this doctor is that it seems that she had made up her mind before getting any information on the subject whatsoever. There are many modalities out there that can be used to treat a variety of maladies. I cannot imagine the kinds of things from physical injuries to psychological problems that must plague people in the military. Do we not owe it to them to offer as many options for their healing as possible even if they are not what we would personally chose for ourselves?

To Dr. Hall I would say, you have every right to feel the way you do about acupuncture. You are lucky to live in a country where you have that right. Many people do not. But I would ask that you not take the option away from others who may benefit. It would be like me saying that I don’t like eggs so I want to have chickens abolished everywhere so no one else can enjoy them either. We all deserve to have choice, and the troops should have as many choices for treatment as possible and make the choice for themselves.

Part 2 of Debunking the Acupuncture Myth Next Month! Stay tuned…. ;)

 

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