Acupuncture: Nonsense with Needles

Arthur Taub, M.D., Ph.D.
February 21, 2005

Immediately before and after the visit of former President Richard M. Nixon to the People’s Republic of China in 1972, reports circulated in the West suggesting that major surgery could be accomplished with acupuncture as the only anesthetic agent. The impression was given that acupuncture was widely used and could be applied in high-risk cases, in children, in the aged, and in veterinary surgery. Perhaps the best-known rumor about “acupuncture anesthesia” was that The New York Times’s noted political analyst James Reston had his appendix removed with acupuncture as the anesthetic. Whatever the reasons for the currency of these ideas, they were, every single one of them, untrue.

Acupuncture as a System of Medicine

Chen-Chiu, or acupuncture-moxibustion, is a technique of medical treatment that began in Stone Age China. It consists of the insertion of needles into the skin, or muscles and tendons beneath, at one or more named points that are said to “represent” various internal organs. These “acupuncture points” are generally located where imaginary horizontal and vertical lines (“meridians”) meet on the surface of the body. The organs are also “represented” by points on the surface of the ear or on one finger. Originally there were 365 points, corresponding to the days of the year, but the number identified by proponents has grown to over two thousand, and various charts locate the points differently.

According to classical theory, good health is said to be produced by a harmonious mixture of yin and yang, the fundamental activity characteristics of the universe, which combine to form the life force, Ch’i or Qi. The disorganization of the flow of Ch’i is said to produce illness. The acupuncture needle supposedly can regulate this flow. Moxibustion is a technique in which the herb Artemesia vulgaris, or wormwood, is burned at specified points on or near the skin, sometimes to the point of blistering.

Classical Chinese physicians applied these techniques to the entire range of human illness. Surgery as such (save for the operation of castration used to supply eunuchs for the imperial household) was not a part of classical Chinese medicine. The diagnosis of disease was based mainly upon examination of the “pulse.” This was not a measurement of the rate and rhythm of the heart, as is done nowadays. Rather, the “pulse” (with six varieties) was related to such things as the “texture” and force of the radial artery at several points of the wrist, while the artery was being compressed lightly or forcefully. Pulse diagnosis supposedly revealed the state of health of the various internal organs. Diagnosis was also based upon the history of the patient’s symptoms, the appearance of the patient’s tongue, and the state of the weather. Because dissection of the human body was not practiced, internal organs were imagined in rather odd positions and shapes, and some organs were invented. One of these was the “triple warmer,” whose precise location baffles even the most astute translator of Chinese acupuncture classics.

Herbal pharmacology has played and continues to play a significant role in classical Chinese medicine. Herbs were generally made into a sort of tea. Some of these herbs (such as ma huang, which is known to contain ephedrine, a drug useful in the treatment of asthma) possess useful therapeutic properties. The majority of such preparations, however, are worthless. In recent years, many classical preparations have been “adulterated” with active agents that have not been listed as ingredients.

Classical Chinese medicine was practiced for thousands of years, maintained by the force of Buddhist and Confucian conservatism. Discerning Chinese were not always content with it, however, particularly when other forms of medical and surgical treatment became known to them.

Resistance to Acupuncture in China

In the late nineteenth century, efforts by the waning Manchu dynasty toward modernization included an unsuccessful attempt to forbid acupuncture. In the following years, vigorous opposition to acupuncture was mounted by both right- and left-wing intellectuals. Notable among the latter group was Lu Hsun, a major figure in the literature of the People’s Republic of China and an author much favored by then Communist party chairman Mao Tse-tung. Lu Hsun ridiculed traditional notions of physiology and indicted Chinese medicine for ineptness, ignorance, and greed.

These indictments were echoed in the 1930s and 1940s by Pa Chin, a revolutionary writer. Many conservative Chinese Nationalist intellectuals shared these authors’ feelings of revulsion toward acupuncture and Chinese medicine. Repeated attempts by the Kuomintang (the nationalist people’s party) to forbid acupuncture failed primarily because of political pressure. In spite of its low therapeutic value, many party members saw Chinese medicine as a part of the “national essence.” Prior to the military unification of Mainland China in 1948–49, the Chinese Communists did not emphasize acupuncture as a medical technique.

Even though the Chinese Communist party made an intensive effort to eliminate traditional modes of thought and to reform social structure, acupuncture was retained as an integral portion of its national medical system. The party realized that the approximately ten thousand Western-trained physicians in China at the time of the Chinese Communist Revolution were too few to carry out the gigantic public health tasks necessary to modernize China. Medical personnel would therefore have to be recruited from among the approximately half a million practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine. It was apparently expected that these practitioners would gradually become more scientific in their work. As Chairman Mao put it: “Traditional Chinese medicine and pharmacology are a great treasure house. Efforts must be made to explore them and raise them to a higher level.” Efforts by the Communists to elevate traditional Chinese practitioners, however, were hampered by the party’s other political doctrines. As a result, unscientific medical practices remain widespread throughout China.

It appears, however, that acupuncture is not highly regarded within China’s scientific community. The great majority of papers in the many journals published by the Chinese Medical Association are about scientific rather than traditional methods. Few articles concern themselves with acupuncture, herbalism, or their variants.

Acupuncture Quackery

Many claims that acupuncture is effective have been publicly advanced—in China as well as elsewhere—without evidence to back them up. One strategy by which the Chinese promoted this fiction was to use acupuncture therapy together with known effective medication. For example, one Chinese textbook published in the early 1970s states:

Epilepsy is generally caused by rising air and congestion causing the heart to be stuffed and confused. The disease is in the heart, the liver, and the bladder. Treatment should be designed to ease the liver, to stop the rising air, to eliminate congestion, and to open up stuffed circulation.

The text then advocates six kinds of herbal mixtures, three forms of acupuncture, and the injection of vitamins into one of the acupuncture points. However, the effective medications diphenylhydantoin, phenobarbital, and primidone are suggested also. For myasthenia gravis, a disease in which muscles including those of breathing are easily fatigued, vigorous physical training methods including cold baths (which could be dangerous in this disease) are suggested by this same book. Thirteen acupuncture points are discussed, with vitamin injections suggested at some of them. Traditional Chinese herbs are suggested as a “tonic” to improve the “air.” Again, however, the effective agents neostigmine, physostigmine, and ephedrine are also advised. A similar approach is used in treating Parkinsonism, for which acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, and effective medications such as the belladonna alkaloids are prescribed. There is not the slightest evidence to show that the traditional Chinese medical methods improve the modern treatment of these diseases in any way.

Another strategy used by the Chinese to suggest that acupuncture is effective was to suppress knowledge of the natural course of illnesses that improve spontaneously. Acupuncture was then given credit for curing illnesses that would have improved by themselves.

In 1974, I was a member of the Acupuncture Study Group of the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People’s Republic of China. Our group visited the Acupuncture Research Institute in Peking as well as traditional medical hospitals in the Shanghai region. There I observed one patient receive acupuncture treatment beginning two weeks after a stroke. Patients of this type tend to recover spontaneously and gradually. In fact, this patient, who had received acupuncture for six months, recovered no more and no less quickly than would be expected with no treatment or with a minimum of physical therapy. Several young women I examined had monthly migraine headaches associated with nausea, vomiting, spots before their eyes, and sensitivity to bright light. They told me that monthly acupuncture treatment limited their headaches to several days per month. They apparently did not know that this is the usual state of affairs without treatment.

Another strategy used by the Chinese was to claim benefit from acupuncture where none, in fact, existed. One nearsighted child I saw was given acupuncture treatment before receiving her eyeglasses. I was told that the treatment would enable her problem to be corrected with weaker lenses. This was simply untrue. Other patients with Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord damage, and after-effects of head injury were also said to have gotten better, but my examination detected no improvement. Patients were also said to receive treatment for “nerve deafness.” However, controlled studies conducted in the United States have failed to show that acupuncture can help nerve deafness.

“Acupuncture Anesthesia”

Acupuncture is not widely used in China as an “anesthetic.” A reasonable estimate of the total use of “acupuncture anesthesia” is approximately 5 to 10 percent. During our visit to China, the Acupuncture Study Group was able to substantiate a number of previous reports that almost all patients operated upon under “acupuncture anesthesia” received other agents in addition. This almost always included phenobarbital (a sedative) and meperidine (a narcotic painkiller) before and during the operation. Local anesthesia was also used liberally. I personally witnessed operations in which local anesthesia was used from beginning to end, but which were nevertheless classified as done under “acupuncture anesthesia.”

Acupuncture needles may be inserted as much as several inches beneath the skin directly into major nerve trunks. These can be stimulated with electric shocks to exhaust their ability to conduct impulses and produce local anesthesia—which is not an acupuncture effect.

“Acupuncture anesthesia” is not generally used for children under twelve because of their inability to cooperate. Elderly patients are generally not operated upon with “acupuncture anesthesia,” and it is considered “experimental” in animals. (When it is done with animals, they are strapped tightly to the operating table.) On an occasion that I witnessed, a horse kicked vigorously during the operative procedure, suggesting that anesthesia was not working. The horse also drank with particular eagerness the water that was offered to it, suggesting that it was in surgical shock.

Acupuncture anesthesia is never used for emergency surgery. It is said to be applicable only to “classical” surgery—operations in which no complications are expected. These operations are performed so as to minimize tissue damage and pulling upon muscles or internal organs. To achieve this end, surgical incisions are made small. This means that the operative field is often poorly exposed, increasing the risk that important structures may be damaged. Proper exploration is usually not possible, wasting the opportunity to detect previously undiagnosed disease such as cancer.

The Chinese have stated that general anesthesia is always available as a “backup” procedure in case the patient experiences overwhelming pain when “acupuncture anesthesia” is used alone. In such cases, however, general anesthesia would be started in the midst of an already hazardous surgical situation. The most dangerous time during anesthesia is when the patient is being put to sleep, the time where spasms of the vocal cords or cardiac arrest are most likely to occur. If general anesthesia is delayed until severe pain requires its use, these dangers are increased.

Despite these drawbacks, some major surgical procedures have been performed in China using only small amounts of premedication, little or no local anesthetic, and the insertion of acupuncture needles. Surgical procedures that have been witnessed have gone well, but postoperative studies have not been done. Proper studies should not merely describe what has taken place, but should also consider that Chinese and Western patients may differ in their reactivity to pain and in cultural attitudes toward surgery. Since good statistical studies are not available from the Chinese, “acupuncture anesthesia” should be considered experimental. Doctors who undertake it, and patients who submit to it, should do so only under carefully controlled conditions in established research programs.

Are you wondering what happened to James Reston? Chemical anesthesia was used during the operation to remove his appendix. Acupuncture needles were said to have relieved his postoperative pain on the day following surgery, one hour after they were used. It seems more likely, however, that the relief resulted from the spontaneous return of normal intestinal function.

Acupuncture “Clinics” and Failed Treatment in the United States

The popularization of acupuncture and its supposed therapeutic results led to rapid development of acupuncture “clinics” and “centers” throughout the United States. Some even provided bus transportation from local shopping centers to their premises. While the majority of these facilities were “supervised” by licensed physicians, acupuncture was performed in the usual manner, and diagnostic investigations were minimal. Previous diagnoses or misdiagnoses were often accepted, with therapy prescribed by ancient rule of thumb. The patients would generally be abandoned to their own devices if acupuncture did not prove successful after a few treatments. As in classical times (and in modern China), treatment was given for disorders in which symptoms vary with the weather and the disposition of the patient, such as generalized osteoarthritis, and for disorders in which remissions are the rule, such as multiple sclerosis.

During this period, I participated in a taped discussion with the director of one clinic who maintained that patients previously unable to walk because of multiple sclerosis had walked out of his facility unaided. The gentleman did not indicate how he had substantiated the diagnosis. Nor could he state what had prevented the patients from walking, whether their legs had been weak, their coordination or balance impaired, or some other reason. Nor could he state how and to what degree these functions had improved as a result of treatment. It should be clear that if a “paralyzed” patient walks unaided after brief treatment, it is certainly more appropriate to question the diagnosis than to praise the treatment!

As the number of acupuncture facilities increased, many patients for whom acupuncture had failed were seen at pain and arthritis clinics. Among those I personally attended were:

  • A middle-aged gentleman with sexual impotence and suicidal depression. He had been treated with acupuncture needles placed in the thighs and in the region between the penis and the rectum. Later he required psychiatric treatment.
  • A middle-aged woman with pain in the upper teeth who was treated with acupuncture stimulation with needles placed between the second and third toes of her foot. She required extensive dental diagnosis and treatment, as well as psychiatric care to compensate for the intense feelings of frustration that followed the failure of treatment.
  • A middle-aged public relations man who was born with a malformed spinal canal. This gentleman had more pain at the end of treatment than when he began.
  • Patients with osteoarthritis of the hands who showed minimal relief after the first, but increased pain after the last treatments, and who eventually abandoned them as useless.
  • Patients with neuralgic pain following shingles which acupuncture did not help.

A remark characteristic of my patients was made by a middle-aged man with back pain, who said that acupuncture therapy had relieved him only of his money.

Does Acupuncture Relieve Pain?

It is reasonably clear that acupuncture cannot cure any disease. Does it relieve pain? My clinical experience with acupunctured patients suggests that any pain relief following the procedure is short-lived. Formal studies have shown conflicting results. In most instances, acupuncture produced no better relief than was produced by a placebo. In other studies, acupuncture did produce some degree of difficulty in distinguishing a previously painful stimulus from a nonpainful stimulus, but this relief was minimal, of short duration, and not at all comparable with the degree of relief claimed for conventional acupuncture therapy. In 1990, a trio of Dutch epidemiologists analyzed fifty-one controlled studies of acupuncture for chronic pain and concluded that “the quality of even the better studies proved to be mediocre. . . . The efficacy of acupuncture in the treatment of chronic pain remains doubtful.”

“Auriculotherapy” is a variant of acupuncture based on the notion that the body surface and organs are “represented” on the ear in a pattern that resembles an inverted fetus. Proponents claim that pain can be relieved by electrical stimulation of points that “correspond” to the painful area of the body. In 1984, the Journal of the American Medical Association published the results of a controlled study of thirty-six patients given auriculotherapy for chronic pain. The researchers found that stimulating locations recommended by auriculotherapy proponents was no more effective than barely touching remote points with or without electrical stimulation. The experiment demonstrated that any relief produced by auriculotherapy would be due to a placebo effect.

Adverse Effects

Acupuncture has not merely failed to demonstrate significant benefits. In some instances, it has also been very dangerous.

Acupuncture needles are not only inserted into the skin. Needles, up to one foot in length(!), may be inserted deep into the body; serious harm may result when they penetrate vital structures. In one case of back pain and burning around the mouth and vagina, needles were inserted through the skin of the chest. The lung was penetrated and collapsed, filling the chest cavity with almost a pint of blood. The patient required two weeks of hospitalization which was complicated by pneumonia.

Death from puncture of the heart has been reported. Other reports mention puncture of the liver, spleen, bladder, kidneys, and the pregnant uterus. Since classical Chinese medical practice does not recognize that germs cause disease, acupuncture needles might not be sterilized. Lack of sterile technique can, of course, result in bacterial and viral infections. In China, acupuncture needles are stored in alcohol solutions. Since alcohol does not kill the virus that causes infectious hepatitis, contaminated needles can spread this serious infection from patient to patient. Cases of bacterial endocarditis (a life-threatening infection involving a heart valve) have also been reported.

Some acupuncture needles are unusually thin and poorly made. Such needles tend to break. One scientist suffered excruciating pain in an acupuncture experiment when the needle broke off in his foot. An operation was needed to remove the needle.

“Acupuncture anesthesia” may include electrical stimulation of needles placed directly into the sciatic nerve (the main nerve to the leg). If the nerve is stimulated for several hours with high-frequency current, permanent nerve injury is almost guaranteed. The nerve fibers may burn, the nerve sheath may tear, and bleeding into the nerve may occur.

Stimulation of the so-called Ya-men point is recommended for the treatment of nerve deafness in children. Scientific study has demonstrated that this technique is useless. The Ya-men point is located directly above the most sensitive part of the human nervous system, the junction between the spinal cord and the base of the brain. A needle entering this sensitive area can produce instant paralysis of arms and legs, stoppage of breathing, and death.

Textbooks of acupuncture therapeutics advise acupuncture for some conditions that can lead to death or serious disability if not properly diagnosed and treated. Among these conditions are high fever and whooping cough in children, tender breasts in women, and urinary difficulties in men.

While adequate training in medicine or in acupuncture techniques may decrease the incidence of complications, this is no comfort to the victims of these complications.

Acupuncture Teaching

Acupuncture is not part of the curriculum at most American medical schools, although a few schools offer electives and/or courses accredited for continuing education. Proponents claim that several thousand physicians in the United States and Canada use it in their practices. However, many people who practice acupuncture are not adequately trained either in acupuncture techniques or in medicine.

For what it is worth, in China, formal training in acupuncture requires several years. Some American practitioners, however, have merely attended “quickie” courses, some of which lasted only one or two days. During the early 1970s, a chiropractor who traveled around the country teaching such courses to his colleagues was asked by a reporter how long it would take to acquire a working knowledge of acupuncture. The chiropractor replied, “I can teach you all you have to know in ten minutes.” Today he operates a school with more than three hundred hours of courses.

The Checkered Marketplace

In the United States today, acupuncture is used mainly for pain relief—particularly in the hands of physicians. However, it is also advertised for “facial rejuvenation” and a myriad of problems including nerve deafness, overweight, paralysis, allergies, impotence, arthritis, and “candidiasis.” According to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal, veterinary acupuncturists are treating such ailments as listlessness in goldfish, “neuroses” in birds, deafness and back problems in dogs, and aches and pains in horses.

All states permit acupuncture to be performed—some by physicians only, some by lay acupuncturists under medical supervision, and some by unsupervised laypersons. Although lay acupuncture groups advocate standards of training and practice, they have also spawned laws permitting independent practice. In a few states, they actually are lobbying to force physicians who wish to use acupuncture to undergo acupuncture training similar to theirs. An article in the April 1993 Vegetarian Times stated that in the United States there are more than fifty acupuncture schools and about 6,500 practicing acupuncturists.

An attempt is being made to set standards through voluntary certification by the National Commission for the Certification of Acupuncturists (NCCA). Several thousand practitioners have become certified, and some states have adopted the NCCA exam as all or part of their criteria for licensing. The credentials used by acupuncturists include C.A. (certified acupuncturist), M.A. (master acupuncturist), D.A. (diplomate of acupuncture), and O.M.D., (Oriental medical doctor). These credentials are not recognized by the scientific community. In 1990, the U.S. Secretary of Education recognized the National Accreditation Commission for Schools and Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine as an accrediting agency. However, as with chiropractic and naturopathic schools, such recognition is not based upon the scientific validity of what is taught but upon other criteria.

The FDA believes that acupuncture devices “have not been shown to be safe and effective for any diagnostic and therapeutic use.” The National Council Against Health Fraud considers acupuncture an unproven modality that should be restricted to research settings. It also believes that acupuncture licensing should be abolished. I agree. No amount of acupuncture training can enable unsupervised laypersons to safely manage patients who need medical care. Nor is there reason to believe that licensing laws can control acupuncture abuse.

Acupuncture mythology spread rapidly through our country and remains with us. Our best hope is that with time, education, and gradual appreciation of its worthlessness, acupuncture will be resisted by the public. Then it will pass beyond us, as have its sister quackeries: purging, leeching, bleeding, et cetera.

This article was originally published as a chapter in The Health Robbers: A Close Look at Quackery in America. Dr. Taub is a neurologist whose specialty is the diagnosis and treatment of pain. He is also clinical professor of anesthesiology and a lecturer in neurology at Yale University School of Medicine.

    This page was posted on February 21, 2005.