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This part of our series on Traditional Chinese Medicine calls for a confession; I’m not a big fan of alternative medicine.  As you’ve probably guessed from the last article there’s a lot of bunkum dressed up as fact that misleads people into paying substantially more for a placebo (or worse something harmful) than they need to.

Acupuncture is different though – right? The World Health organization offers a list of treatments that acupuncture may offer relief for in preference to traditional medicine, and the National Health Service in the UK offers acupuncture which is government funded – so there’s got to be a scientific basis for acupuncture – doesn’t there?

My first experience of TCM via the medium of acupuncture would come in this exact Yorkshire village, I lived a little further up the street - directly opposite the church. Somedays I really miss the place it was just lovely.

I want to start with a story of my own experience with acupuncture – in the UK. A few years ago, I was living in a little Yorkshire village with my then girlfriend, and a lovely place it was – we shared a beautiful converted 17th century weaver’s cottage, which looked out over a cobbled street on to a churchyard of the most striking kind. We were on first name terms with almost all our neighbors and much of the rest of the village as well. In short, life was bliss.

And then one morning I awoke in agony, somehow in my sleep I’d injured my neck and I could barely move my head without screaming. So as you do, I trotted off to the local doctor’s surgery to get some help and there they decided that acupuncture would be the best therapy for my problem. I’m not fussed about needles (anymore – I was a complete wuss about them until I got my first tattoo, now it’s not such a big deal) so I agreed to give it a go.

Acupuncture as I now know is the idea that by jabbing needles into someone you can re-align the qi on their meridians to make everything hunky dory again. Back then I didn’t know this, all I knew is that I’d read in the paper that it was scientifically proven to work – and that was good enough for me.

My first session was OK – the very nice lady giving the therapy jabbed a few needles into my neck muscles and my shoulder muscles too for good effect. It wasn’t particularly uncomfortable and they had an almost massage like effect while they stuck out of me for 10 minutes or so before they were removed. I can report that my neck was marginally better after this.

This is obviously not me - her neck's nicer than mine, and my hair's longer than hers. But this is acupuncture at work on neck pain.

The second session was meh – no pain, but no massage sensation either and no effect whatsoever on the pain. The third session hurt – really hurt, I have no idea what had changed but I left feeling worse than ever. The fourth was worse, and at this point the “therapist” told me she’d never seen this before and I should perhaps consider other treatment, she said sometimes people found pain on the first session but if they started OK it was always fine from then on in.

I couldn’t get any other treatment until after another 3 weeks with virtually no sleep (lying down was like having a spike driven through the side of my neck) I went and cried in the doctor’s surgery for something to help me sleep. They gave me valium which amongst other things knocks you out like running head first into a wall at the speed of a cheetah. Once my body relaxed at night, it began to heal and three days later I was fine. (I’ll never take valium again – but that’s another story).

So what? You’re probably thinking – one exception to a scientifically proven treatment doesn’t prove that it doesn’t work. And I’d agree with you except for the fact that this year, a bunch of acupuncture proponents decided to do a study to prove how good it is.

The Acupuncture Group recieve treatment from acupuncture in the first 26 weeks, the control group get theirs in the second 26 weeks. (Not much difference to be seen is there?)

The paper itself, was studying the effect of acupuncture on a range of patients who visited their doctor on a regular basis with unexplained symptoms. It was published in the British Journal of Medical Practice, a respected scientific journal. And concluded happily that acupuncture was indeed effective – so all good news right?

No, not really. The authors are proponents of acupuncture, so of course they wanted a happy ending. In fact their data (shown here) shows that not only was acupuncture not particularly effective, it didn’t even have a perceivable placebo effect. So the actual conclusion that you could draw from the paper was – acupuncture isn’t working, it’s not even as good as Mr. Chen’s harmonized sugar pills.

I know two other people who have used acupuncture, an ex-girlfriend who used it for stress and to be nicer – she swore by it, but I’ll be honest I didn’t see any improvements from it and I lived with her. And my mum, who is a full on believer in alternative therapies and she saw no benefit from the treatment either.

So once again, I’ll close the book on acupuncture by urging you to turn to Mr. Chen instead, sugar is much nicer than needles – and apparently it’s more effective. Tomorrow we’ll continue our tour of TCM therapies.