What is wrong with the reporters at the BBC? In an article today under a headline Acupuncture 'more than a placebo', they state that scientists have “proof” that acupuncture works. But the study, they way they report it, says no such thing.
Here’s what they report. Researchers used PET scans to see what was happening in the brains of 14 people during three types of treatment:
- Blunt needles the patients knew would not pierce the skin
- Sham (“trick”) acupuncture needles that gave the impression that the skin was being pierced although it wasn’t
- Real acupuncture needles
Only the brain areas associated with the sensation of touch were activated when the volunteers were touched with the blunt needles.
During the trick needle treatment, an area of the brain associated with the production of natural opiates - substances that act in a non-specific way to relieve pain - were activated.
This same area was activated with the real acupuncture but, in addition, another region of the brain, the insular, was excited by the treatment.
This was a pathway known to be associated with acupuncture treatment and thought to be involved in pain modulation.
Before we go any further, a reminder of what acupuncture is. Acupuncture is the manipulation of “qi” (oddly, pronounced “chi”) by inserting needles at key points in 12 “meridians” to restore the flow of vital energy and balance yin and yang. This is supposed to restore health to the whole body. And the points are very specific: NCCAM states that the body has more than 2,000 acupuncture points; the ones you use depend on the illness you are trying to fix.
Hold on to that definition and look again at the study. It does absolutely nothing to show that acupuncture, as defined, works. All it shows is that if you stick needles in someone, a part of the brain “involved in pain modulation” is stimulated. Well whoopi-do, big surprise! I would certainly hope sticking a needle in someone would stimulate a part of the brain “involved in pain modulation”. If it didn’t you should be worried. I can think of easier ways to do this, though. For example, I would guess a good kick in the balls would also stimulate a part of the brain “involved in pain modulation”, although I doubt I would need a PET scan to prove it. This study does not even attempt to determine if anyone was cured of anything by the treatment. And remember, all that is being discussed is pain modulation: nothing about making the whole body well.
The BBC does end with:
Professor Henry McQuay, professor of pain relief at the University of Oxford and member of the Bandolier group that looks at the evidence behind different medical treatments, said: "The great bulk of the randomised controlled trials to date do not provide convincing evidence of pain relief over placebo".
Precisely. So why do the BBC start by saying this is “proof” acupuncture works. It’s not even evidence it works, let alone any kind of proof.