Acupuncture: Does it really help you, or is it a placebo?

The fact is that a lot of so-called alternative medicines are typically nothing more than snake oil peddled by miscreant charlatans. However, objectively speaking, acupuncture seems to occupy a mysterious grey area, and its effectiveness has polarised patients and experts alike, for many decades.

According to Scientific American, millions of Americans receive acupuncture treatment to treat chronic pain, with some even using it to alleviate depression. Harriet Hall, a retired physician and Air Force flight surgeon, believes the published evidence for acupuncture may indicate it is effective in treating pain and nausea, but does little else—if anything—for any other symptoms. Hall maintains that the evidence is compatible with acupuncture being a placebo.

Pharmacologist David Colquhoun (from University College London) is much blunter. Colquhoun says of acupuncture: “Acupuncture does not work, which means all discussions of how it does work are irrelevant. I’m not aware of any evidence that acupuncture works for depression.”

Indeed, if 3,000 trials, decades of research, and millions of dollars can’t determine any concrete effects from acupuncture, one may wonder if it really has any benefits at all. Of course, to those who swear by it, its placebo effect can work just as well as western medicine, especially for cases like depression, where a person’s psychological state has everything to do with whether they are depressed or not.

To be clear, clinical research can never truly prove that any treatment has exactly 0% effect, in the same way that any particular deity can be proven to have exactly 0% chance of existing. Therefore, the burden of proof is on acupuncture; if the research cannot adequately reject the null hypothesis, then the evidence does not confirm acupuncture as being a truly viable medical treatment.

The question must be asked, then: how has acupuncture subsisted since its origins more than 2,000 years ago? To answer this question, one must first look at acupuncture in the context of traditional Chinese medicine. ‘Qi’ (pronounced “chee” in British English) was believed to be a life force energy that would flow the body’s main organs. Although this belief has no scientific basis, its concepts have persisted for thousands of years.

But if it was just a mystical medicine with no basis in science, why do people still line up to get it?

People will still pay for things with no scientific basis, which is why we still have religion, astrology, and mediums who make very good livings from exploiting people’s willingness to believe in the unbelievable. Some people can regularly (and genuinely) feel better from the placebo effect of acupuncture, just like people may feel good after reading a good astrology forecast in the newspaper, getting a pleasant prediction from a psychic, or enjoying praising a god or saviour through gospels and hymns. That is not to say that these things are certainly false, since, like previously mentioned, these things are, in fact, unfalsifiable.

In conclusion, if you genuinely feel that acupuncture makes you feel happier and healthier, that’s your prerogative. Moreover, there are no adverse effects to acupuncture, so long as the acupuncturist is properly trained, of course. A lot of people, knowing this, might decide to instead invest their time and money into scientifically proven medicines; however, some people’s habits will never change. If anything, alternative medicines, in general, have soared from $20 billion in 1990 to over $34 billion in 2009. Although, if one factors in inflation, this increase is only a negligible one. The reality is that only time will tell whether or not acupuncture—and the alternative medicine industry at large—will decline over the coming years.