More on Acupuncture and Spontaneous Human Combustion…..

Yesterday I posted an Onionesque phony news story on a proposed link between bad acupuncture and the persistent and equally bogus entity known as spontaneous human combustion (see Wick Effect). I realized after posting that the point of the story might not be entirely clear. It wasn’t just to poke some fun at acupuncture adherents and their claims, although that was one aspect of my motivation. There is a method to the madness, or at least to the oddness according to my wife.

There has yet to be discovered a treatment, pharmaceutical or otherwise, that has both a specific, measurable therapeutic effect, and an absence of potential negative side effects. As the old saying goes, the poison is often in the dose. Even good old dihydrogen oxide is dangerous when a large enough amount is ingested, leading to water intoxication, hyponatremia, seizures and eventually death. But most interventions carry varying degrees of risk at recommended doses as well as when overdone. Even minor surgeries, such as simple incision and drainage procedures performed in most physician’s offices, can lead to unanticipated complications. Often the risk is small, or even negligible, but there is no such thing as a free ride when it comes to any legitimate treatment.

A large percentage of the proposed health benefits of any so-called alternative medical therapy, and acupuncture is no different despite its undeserved place near the top of the heap in regards to the perception of scientific support, are decidedly non-specific. These claims involve such benefits as the boosting of the immune system (but never which component), the improvement of general well-being, the lifting or stabilization of mood, or the enhancement of male. Claims of this type, of which there is a seemingly endless supply, are meaningless. They are not even wrong, because they are not testable. But they are effective in what they were designed to do, which is to separate you from your money without being subject to the nuisance of providing supporting evidence outside of the occasional, well more than occasional, testimonial.

When proponents do make specific claims, such as ginkgo biloba preventing the onset of dementia in the elderly or chiropractic adjustments being effective in treating asthma, the question can be answered. So far, no non-herbal alternative therapy has been shown to be effective for any specific condition with perhaps an exception for chiropractic manipulation for acute lower back pain. That is debatable considering that this manipulation is the same as that provided by physical therapists, physiatrists and osteopaths. It is also highly suspect that herbs are even lumped into the umbrella category of alternative medicine in the first place. Many effective pharmaceutical agents have been derived from plants and other “natural” origins.

If acupuncture has a specific effect on the body, say by altering neurotransmitters or increasing the secretion of endogenous hormones, or whatever biological mechanism makes you happy that doesn’t involve the unscientific gobbledygook of meridians and mystical human energy, then there must be the potential for unwanted side effects. And I don’t mean the obvious infectious issues associated with the use of unclean needles or the potential for traumatic injury when needles are shoved through the linings of the heart or lungs. I take the extreme difficulty in finding discussion of any such acupuncture side effects as evidence for the lack of any effect at all. To me, the absurdity of such an extreme side effect as exploding due to pent up Qi is equally matched by the ridiculous claim of shoving tiny needles into a patient’s skin in order to provide an effect beyond that of placebo.

There is more to my previous post, such as the issue of chiropractic and stroke, and the portrayal of alternative medicine by the media, but the above covers the primary focus.

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