What will shape the future of acupuncture?

If you have been following the developments in the field of acupuncture for the last couple of years, you might agree with me: the field has reached, or is at least approaching, critical mass, assuring itself some kind of a sustainable future. The big question is: what kind?

While the mass appeal and volume of information about acupuncture has supported the growth of acupuncture as a discipline, it is the content and the quality of information that will shape its future. According to poll data collected in 2007 as part of the National Health Interview Survey, an estimated 3.1 million U.S. adults and 150,000 children had used acupuncture in the previous year. What is truly amazing is that “doctors and nurses were found to be more than twice [as likely] as non-clinical health-care support workers to have tried out a practitioner-based complementary or alternative medicine service in the past year” –Alan Mozes, HealthDay, reported on August 26, 2011.

The amount of existing information and its outright inconsistency is striking: both on the pro- and con-acupuncture side, offerings range from from the well-respected collection of Cochrane’s reviews and PubMed databases that contain data from randomized controlled clinical studies to dubious New Age web sites. There are also blogs that are authored by purist-scientists whose stellar scientific credentials can be matched only by their zeal, but, unfortunately, way too often, also, by the lack of in-depth knowledge of the subject.

One can hardly blame the skeptics: it is difficult to take acupuncture proponents seriously when, during a scientific debate, they keep defaulting to a 2000-year-old argument that the unblocking of Qi in the meridians is a sufficient explanation for how acupuncture works. I am convinced that an open-minded practitioner from the Han Dynasty period, somehow magically exposed to the modern-day science, would have handled this debate better by embracing the centuries of scientific progress in his attempt to explain and develop his craft.

Cutting through the noise surrounding the debate about acupuncture, several things become clear. People who are treated with acupuncture do feel better and have less pain, at least for some problems, as evidenced by the Cochrane reviews of the tension-type and the migraine headaches: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3099266/?tool=pmcentrez

The debate is really about how acupuncture works and whether it has clinical significance. Are there sound biological mechanisms behind its effects? Is this a placebo effect? Or both?

In the article “Paradoxes in Acupuncture Research: Strategies for Moving Forward”, published in the Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine”, 2011, the authors attempt to approach these issues in a thoughtful, structured way: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20976074

The authors represent an emerging and growing group of serious acupuncture practitioners and researches who will take the profession into the future.

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