Lady getting acupuncture in the park
Photo: Keith: /CC

Acupuncture Is It an Effective Treatment?

There is a dispute going on in the UK health community currently, between mainstream medicine, and supporters and practitioners of so-called “Alternative Medicine”. Those in favour of non-traditional medicine say that treatments such as Acupuncture can be effective for a variety of physical and mental health conditions. However, the evidence for the efficiency of alternative treatments has a reputation of being anecdotal rather than scientific.


Critics of these treatments say that there is really no such as thing as “Alternative Medicine”, just Medicine that works, and treatment that doesn’t!

So who’s right?


Let’s take a look at the evidence, and look at some of the studies that discuss the topic. We will try to give weight to scientific evidence, over anecdotal evidence. However, many people first go to alternative practitioners on the basis of a personal recommendation, and often feel better afterwards, so should not be completely discounted. 


What is Acupuncture?


Acupuncture is an alternative remedy that has been used in China for thousands of years. It involves the patient lying down, and a trained Acupuncturist gently inserts very fine needles into specific points in the body.


The theory behind it is the ancient Chinese belief that every person has a flow of “Chi” or “qi” around their body, and that inserting needles into the pressure points affect the Chi flow. Doing this can relieve symptoms of illness, and help the patients physical and mental health.


The focus is on you as an individual, not your illness, and all symptoms are seen in relation to each other.


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What Is It Used For?


Acupuncture is used to treat a wide range of health conditions, including, but not limited to:

  • Headaches
  • Anxiety
  • Back Pain
  • Infertility
  • Asthma


But Does It Work?


In 2000, a British Medical Association survey showed that around half of doctors had prescribed acupuncture in the UK. 


As stated above, the medical basis for Acupuncture is that illness is caused by qi not flowing properly. The Guardian mentions that since the 1970’s there have been thousands of studies, and no evidence has proved that any force resembling qi exists, or that is flows along invisible energy lines.


Supporters of Acupuncture cite the fact that the treatment has been practiced by millions over millennia, with many finding it helpful – people undergoing Acupuncture say that they feel a remission or reduction in symptoms after a consultation, however, this is anecdotal evidence.


Supporters of Acupuncture also cite extensive studies by The Cochrane Collaboration which point to the practice being helpful for back pain. 


The Placebo Effect


Some researchers say that any efficacy of Acupuncture is down to the placebo effect. This is the curious effect that occurs when people feel better from a treatment, not because the treatment works, but simply because of the act of receiving the treatment itself.


A common example is people having a headache, who then feel better simply by taking sugar pills.


Defenders of Acupuncture admit that the placebo effect may play a part in the treatment’s efficiency, but they go on to say that the placebo can have a very large effect indeed, and certainly doesn’t harm the patient.


The Guardian reports here how the placebo effect works “even if patients know they’re getting a sham drug.” This means that administering a placebo may now require no deception on the part of the doctor. 


This also means that Acupuncture practitioners can explain and not hide a possible placebo effect from their patients - potentially improving industry ethics.




However, one final issue may stand in the way of this progress of knowledge – the nature of testing acupuncture itself.


The gold standard for medical trials and testing is the double blind trial, where patients are given two medicines, one a real medicine and one a sugar pill. The point is that the subject doesn’t know which it is taking. This makes double blind testing Acupuncture problematic, since “the tests are not truly double blind, because the doctor is aware which treatment is real and could unwittingly be passing on information to the patient. These flaws in all acupuncture studies mean there is a real risk of bias – even in the best research - which could skew the results slightly.” (Guardian)


Given that Acupuncture is so difficult to test, and the studies prone to bias, some researchers have started to look at meta-studies for a more evaluative approach. Critics say that this just extends the problem further…


So we can see that the efficiency (or not) of Acupuncture is a hotly debated topic. Perhaps we have to wait for more developed methodological trickery and testing to reveal the final medical truth about this ancient Chinese practice, and whether it has a place in the doctor’s armoury of treatments in the 21st Century.