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Battlefield Acupuncture

WTF?

First, let me say that I am not a huge believer in the healing power of acupuncture.  I believe there is a significant placebo effect associated with acupuncture, and I know that some people who believe in the power of acupuncture report relief from some disease symptoms after receiving acupuncture.  But, not having read the medical literature myself I can’t gripe too loudly about the practice’s shortcomings.  I’ll leave that to others at SBM, Whats the Harm, JREF, Quackwatch, Lay Scientist, etc.

But you know what’s fun?  If you start to write a google search “Acupuncture is…”, you’ll get “scam” and “bullshit” before “effective” and “safe”.

In a recent study, acupuncture did not fair any better than the placebo treatments(1).  Therefore (according to this study), acupuncture does not work…at least in the sense that acupuncture proponents are trying to explain it.  But fine…I like to pay exorbitant amounts of money to have people touch me all over my body (I refer to the ancient art of massage, of course.  Not the ancient art of…nevermind), and if you want to pay someone to poke you with needles because you think it makes you feel better, who am I to judge?

But I get offended when a sleaze ball practitioner claims that acupuncture can do more for you than makes sense.  And when those sleaze balls influence really sick people to choose acupuncture as an alternative to traditional, proven medication or medical supervision, really bad things can happen.  AIDS can not be cured by acupuncture.  However, Hepatitis B infection can be spread by poorly administered acupuncture.

And now Battlefield Acupuncture.  I heard about battlefield acupuncture being used to treat wound pain on Mark Crislip’s Quackcast, episode 41.  Why acupuncture, when one has a perfectly legitimate excuse to get morphine…?  If you’ve just lost your legs, do you really need to worry about keeping a clear head?  When I was browsing around the interwebs in a completely random, uncontrolled, google-ish way for more information I found a fictional scenario of battlefield acupuncture being administered in the field, written by Dr. David Gorski in 2008 for science-based medicine.  He follows that up with a nice review of the information available at the time.  Take it away, Dr. Gorski!

But acupuncture isn’t just for the battlefield!  With Wounded Warrior Acupuncture (WWA), our  honored veterans can take advantage of acupuncture to treat conditions not limited to back pain, neck pain, joint pain, neuropathies, post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), insomnia, anxiety, depression, brain injuries, phantom limb pain, etc.  Of course in the next paragraph, WWA is quick to point out that “our treatment is in no way intended as a replacement for medical care. WWA can be used as a complementary therapy or used as a stand-alone treatment for certain mild to moderate conditions.”  Yes folks, mild-to-moderate conditions such as PTSD and associated illnesses.  As long as your problem isn’t too problematic, we can take a stab at it (ha!).  No gain, no foul, right?

(1) “A Randomized Trial Comparing Acupuncture, Simulated Acupuncture, and Usual Care for Chronic Low Back Pain” Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(9):858-866  See Respectful Insolence for a very good write up of this study and the hype surrounding it.

Comments

  1. Hubby says

    I agree with you that acupuncture is a false therapy. However I will add that acupuncture is a false therapy…in and of itself…unless the receiver happens to believe that it heals. The practice of acupuncture (with the power of the human mind) can trigger the famous placebo effect, which actually can relieve disease symptoms. My concern is that after science debunks all the false therapies, it may be difficult for a person to trigger and benefit from the placebo effect. Modern medicine and therapies are amazing but do not relieve all disease symptoms. The “placebo treatments” are often the final hope for a suffering person when modern medicine fails. This being said, I am not advocating that science stop debunking false therapies – that would be advocating that science stop discovering fact – which would be terrible. So what will happen? Science will continue to do what it does (hopefully) and discover fact; humans will continue to do what they do and believe in final hopes; and I think both are necessary.

  2. says

    Damn you, evil Hubby. My own husband, a proponent of Big Placebo. (http://open.salon.com/blog/amytuteurmd/2009/10/01/big_placebo_says_medicine_never_cures_anythingzz).

    I don’t know enough about placebo effect studies to answer this question thoroughly. What I can say is this: if we know a treatment is fake, non-specific, a total sham, but people report feeling better for it, then what is the drive for discovering the root cause of the helpful agent or effect? Do you want to continue doing a rain dance just because sometimes it appears to work, and it can’t really hurt?

    The placebo effect is not a specific, well-defined set of actions that we can follow and replicate (i.e., science)…it is a word that we assign when a patient feels better but not as a specific result of the treatment. There is no such thing as a “placebo treatment”. If people know that what they are taking is a placebo, they may or may not respond to the “treatment”. So what we’d have to do is lie to patients…”Oh, yeah yeah…this is a sugar pill…I mean standard medication for back pain. Let me know if it works…not that it wouldn’t, you understand…”

    Instead of spending kazillions of dollars on sham treatments that do nothing except for (sometimes) tricking (some) people into thinking they feel better in the short term, let’s put our energy and money into researching what is really happening when people convince themselves they are getting better…despite the fact they took sugar pills instead of active medications.

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