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‘Acupuncture Anesthesia’ Redux: another Skeptic and an Unfortunate Misportrayal at the NCCAM

A Neglected Skeptic

Near the end of my series* on ‘Acupuncture Anesthesia’, I wrote this:

Most Westerners—Michael DeBakey and John Bonica being exceptions—who observed ‘acupuncture anesthesia’ in China during the Cultural Revolution seem to have failed to recognize what was going on right under their noses.

I should have added—and I now have—Arthur Taub’s name to that tiny, exceptional group. Taub, a neurologist and neurophysiologist at Yale, was a member of a delegation of Americans sent to China to observe ‘acupuncture anesthesia’ in May of 1974, about a year after Dr. Bonica‘s visit. The delegation included several prominent anesthesiologists. Their report,  Acupuncture Anesthesia in the People’s Republic of China: A Trip Report of the American Acupuncture Anesthesia Study Group, was published in 1976 and is available in its entirety here. Excerpts follow (emphasis added):

Pain is a subjective experience. Judging whether an individual is in a state of pain depends on observations of the subject’s behavior, including verbal reports to the observer…When there is no evidence of pain, the observer can adopt one of three positions: (more…)

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“Acupuncture Anesthesia”: a Proclamation from Chairman Mao (Part IV)

The Cultural Revolution

After investigating ‘acupuncture anesthesia’ in the People’s Republic of China in 1973, John Bonica wrote:

From the guarded comments made by several anesthesiologists, I concluded that this disuse [of 'acupuncture anesthesia,' after its introduction in 1958 until the

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“Acupuncture Anesthesia”: a Proclamation from Chairman Mao (Part III)

A Digression: The Politics of Chinese Medicine in the People’s Republic of China (The Early Years)

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A Partial Book Review: Chinese Medicine in Early Communist China, 1945-63: a Medicine of Revolution, by Kim Taylor

Mao’s was a complex personality. He was by nature a control freak, highly secretive, quickly suspicious, ruthless in revenge. These were all personal characteristics that were to determine the flow of politics in early Communist China. (Taylor, p. 4)

We have already seen that attempts to create ‘acupuncture anesthesia’ began in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1958. As suggested by the title of this series, this resulted from neither rigorous research nor the serendipity that occasionally heralds important discoveries. Rather, the apparent prominence of acupuncture in health care in the PRC was a matter of governmental fiat. Even before the Communist victory in 1949, it was clear to Chairman Mao Zedong that there were not enough ‘Western’ trained physicians to handle the massive health problems of the country, which included an infant mortality rate of 1 in 5, an overall death rate of 30 per 1000 per year, and widespread disability. Most of this was due to malnutrition and infectious diseases, including many that sound exotic and ominous to the modern ear:

…schistosomiasis, filariasis, ancyclostomiasis, Kala-azar, encephalitis, plague, malaria, smallpox and venereal disease…measles, dysentery, typhoid, diphtheria, trachoma, tuberculosis, leprosy, goitre, Kaschin-Beck’s disease…(Taylor, p. 103)

Pre-scientific Chinese medicine, acupuncture in particular, was identified by Mao and other Communist leaders as worthy of cultivating:

Our nation’s health work teams are large. They have to concern themselves with over five hundred million people [including the] young, old, and ill. This is a huge enterprise, and one that is extremely important. Thus our responsibility weighs heavily…At present, doctors of Western medicine are few [10,000-20,000], and [thus] the broad masses of the people, and in particular the peasants, rely on Chinese medicine to treat illness. Therefore, we must strive for the complete unification of Chinese medicine. –Mao Zedong, 1950, quoted in Taylor (p. 33)

Taylor writes that there may have been 500,000 doctors of ‘Chinese Medicine’ at the time. It is tempting to conclude that Mao’s call for the ‘unification of Chinese medicine’ was a cynical way to make it appear that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could provide adequate health care in a much shorter time than would be required to train sufficient numbers of modern physicians and to build and equip modern facilities. This is undoubtedly true, but Taylor argues that there were additional considerations:

…Mao evidently saw the profession of Chinese medicine not so much as a therapeutic practice, but more as a large, and therefore significant, body of people. Mao’s support of Chinese medicine during this time can be linked to a concern for adequate health care manpower, and by extrapolation, to a concern for social stability. If the Chinese medical practitioners were ignored and not forcibly, as it were, integrated into the new Communist society, and if their medicine was not encouraged, it would mean hundreds of thousands of people would be without a livelihood. Including their dependents, this would mean that there would be hundreds of thousands of people without any means of support. It is likely that Mao interpreted the more serious problem to be one of economics, and the importance of keeping people usefully employed within society, rather than the dangers of supporting a potentially ineffective medicine. (Taylor, p. 35)

Mao also wrote:

Although we should have an all-round and correct understanding of Chinese medicine, Chinese medicine also has to transform itself. We must accept this slice of our old heritage critically. To look down upon Chinese medicine is not correct. To claim that everything about Chinese medicine is good, or too good, this is also not correct. Chinese and Western medicines must unite. (Mao Zedung, 1954, quoted in Taylor, p. 35)

Thus there was, according to Taylor, to be a ‘scientification’ of Chinese medicine. This did not mean ‘scientific’ in the familiar sense:

In Mao’s definition of this ‘new democratic culture’, he was to use three words which were to describe its development. These were ‘new’ (xin), ‘science’ (kexue), and ‘unity’ (tuanjie). The term ‘new’ implied free from superstition and the heavy links to a feudal past. Instead the components of the new culture would have to be forward moving and enterprising. Mao advocated that such a change would be possible through the use of ‘science’. By ‘science’ Mao was not so much referring to the science linked with the Western investigation of nature, but more to the Marxist ideal of science as the criteria for true knowledge. For Mao stated that ‘this type of new democratic culture is scientific. It is opposed to all feudal and superstitious ideas; it stands for seeking truth from facts, it stands for objective truth and for unity between theory and practice’. ‘Unity’ was the third criterion in the building up of a new China. Everybody had to join together and fight for the same cause, and this included all classes of Chinese society, from the upper bourgeoisie to the peasantry, so long as their beliefs were not against those of the Party. It also implied a unity of knowledge, and this had particular implications for the revolutionary intellectual. (Taylor, pp. 15-16)

In other words, as Mao later asserted,

In the future there will be only one medicine; that is to say a [single] medicine guided by the laws of dialectical materialism, and not two [separate] medicines. (Quoted in Taylor, p. 35)

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Animal acupuncture

Periodically, one sees newspaper articles extolling the virtues of acupuncture for animals. To those familiar with the practice of acupuncture, the tag lines are nauseatingly familiar, e.g., acupuncture has been around for thousands of years, it works to stimulate the animal’s natural energies, etc., etc. Ditto the testimonials; Fluffy wasn’t helped by anything else; now, after a few months of treatment (and plenty of time), Fluffy is running around happily. Some may even take such testimony further, asserting, for example, with some rather tortured logic, that since acupuncture “works” in animals, and animals aren’t thought to be susceptible to placebo effects, then acupuncture must therefore work in people.

In fact, other than testimonials, there’s really no good evidence that acupuncture does work in animals. In fact, acupuncture isn’t much practiced in veterinary medicine – a distinct (but very vocal) minority of veterinarians may practice it. In fact, the most recent review on the management of canine arthritis concluded, “There was weak or no evidence in support of the use of” various modalities, including electrostimulated acupuncture and gold wire acupuncture,”1 and a recent study of electroacupuncture for postoperative pain after back surgery in dogs concluded that there was “equivocal evidence” for an effect, even though there was no difference in analgesics used between treatment and control groups.2
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“Acupuncture Anesthesia”: A Proclamation from Chairman Mao (Part II)

An Anesthesiologist’s Perspective

The late John Bonica (1917-1994), one of the great anesthesiologists of the 20th century, has been called “The Founding Father of the Pain Field.” He developed this interest while treating wounded soldiers at Fort Lewis, Washington, during WW II. Shortly thereafter he became a pioneer of epidural analgesia and other forms of safe pain relief for labor and delivery. In 1947 he created the first multidisciplinary pain clinic, at Tacoma General Hospital, and in 1960 brought it to the University of Washington School of Medicine when he became the founder and first chairman of its Department of Anesthesiology. In 1953 he published the first comprehensive textbook on the subject of pain, the 1500 page Management of Pain. In 1973 he founded what is now the largest professional organization devoted to pain relief, the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP).

Dr. Bonica was born in Italy. He came to New York City with his family when he was 11. His father died four years later and he became the major breadwinner for the family. He competed in wrestling while in high school and won both the New York City and state championships. Later he worked his way through college and medical school by wrestling professionally under the pseudonym ‘Johnny (Bull) Walker’, and according to several sources he was the “Light Heavyweight Wrestling Champion of the World.” He continued to wrestle while in the army but concealed his military identity by becoming, in the ring, the “Masked Marvel.”

At the time of the burgeoning Western interest in acupuncture in the early 1970s, Dr. Bonica became the Chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on Acupuncture of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In 1973 he was “selected by the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People’s Republic of China of the National Academy of Sciences to be a member of the first official American medical delegation to visit the People’s Republic of China, and was given the responsibility of evaluating acupuncture and anesthesia as practiced in that country.”

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Acupuncture and Back Pain – Part II

Last week I discussed a clinical trial comparing standardized acupuncture, individualized acupuncture, placebo-acupuncture, and usual care. In that discussion I emphasized the comparison between the three acupuncture groups, which did not show any difference in outcome. These results are consistent with the overall acupuncture literature, which shows in the better controlled trials that it does not matter where you stick the needles or even if you stick them through the skin. Therefore the scientific evidence fails to reject the null hypothesis (that acupuncture does not work). This did not stop the press from declaring, almost uniformly, that acupuncture works for back pain, contributing to the public misunderstanding of clinical science.

This week I am going to focus on the other aspect of the trial – the one the researchers and the press chose to focus on – the comparison of the two real and one placebo acupuncture arms to “usual care.” This too was misrepresented by the press, encouraged by the overinterpretation of the evidence by the researchers.

In the comments to Part I of this discussion David Gorski correctly pointed out that the study in fact did not even constitute a comparison of acupuncture to standard medical treatment. He is absolutely correct, and the many reasons for this are worth explaining in detail. Understanding the technology of clinical trials is central to science-based medicine, including all of their pitfalls and limitations. For practical and logistical reasons there is almost never a perfect clinical trial, but mischief only ensues when limitations are not understood, leading to a misinterpretation (and almost always an overinterpretation in the direction of the researcher’s bias) of the evidence.

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“Acupuncture Anesthesia”: A Proclamation from Chairman Mao (Part I)

James Reston’s Appendectomy

For many Americans, the current wave of public fascination with “complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)” can be traced to a single event: New York Times columnist James Reston’s appendectomy in China during the summer of 1971, which Reston reported in an interesting and amusing article on July 26 of that year. Many of those who noticed the publicity following this event erroneously concluded that Mr. Reston had undergone “acupuncture anesthesia.” A few years ago, a Google search for “acupuncture and Reston” revealed that approximately 50% of the numerous “hits” reported this, as though it were an uncontroversial fact. Other sources have suggested the same, but in veiled language. Here are examples of each: 

In the 1970s, interest in the procedure was sparked when New York Times editor James Reston wrote an article about his experience with acupuncture. Reston was covering Richard Nixon’s visit to China when Reston needed an emergency appendectomy, and acupuncture was used as an anesthetic.—UPenn News 1995 

In 1972 President Nixon opened the doors to China. A New York Times journalist James Reston was in China at the time and had an emergency appendectomy with acupuncture used as the anesthetic.—American Acupuncture 

[Acupuncture] made its official appearance in the U.S. in 1971 when an article by J. Reston was published in the New York Times describing his personal experience with acupuncture. While in Beijing reporting on a Ping-Pong tournament, he underwent an emergency appendectomy. Acupuncture was used as surgical anesthesia and to relieve post-operative pain. —Center for the Healing Arts, P.C.

The first US national media coverage concerning Acupuncture was in 1971 during President Nixon’s visit to China. There, visiting columnist James Reston told of his emergency appendectomy performed under Acupuncture anesthesia.— AZ Multicare

When New York Times columnist James Reston underwent an appendectomy while accompanying the Nixon entourage to Beijing in 1971, he wrote about a medical discovery called “acupuncture anesthesia.” Eisenberg, David, with Thomas Lee Wright: Encounters with Qi (p. 28) 

About a month after his appendectomy, Reston did write about acupuncture anesthesia—but not referring to his own operation.

Those who don’t report that Reston had acupuncture anesthesia are likely to write, also erroneously, that his “intense post-operative pain was relieved by acupuncture”:

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Acupuncture Does Not Work for Back Pain

ResearchBlogging.orgA new study which randomized 638 adults to either standard acupuncture, individualized acupuncture, placebo acupuncture using tooth picks that did not penetrate the skin, and standard therapy found exactly what previous evidence has also suggested – it does not seem to matter where you stick the needles or even if you stick the needles through the skin. The only reasonable scientific conclusion to draw from this is that acupuncture does not work.

But let me back up a minute. Imagine if we were evaluating the efficacy of a new pain drug. This drug, when tested in open trials (no blinding or control) has an effect on reducing pain – it is superior to no treatment. When compared to a placebo, however, the drug is no more effective than the placebo, although both are more effective than no treatment.

Now imagine that the pharmaceutical company who manufactures this drug sends out a press release declaring that their drug is effective for pain, but that their research shows that a placebo of their drug is also effective (FDA applications are pending). Therefore more research is needed to determine how their drug works.  Would you buy it?

That is the exact situation we are facing with acupuncture research.

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Risks Associated With Complementary And Alternative Medicine (CAM): A Brief Overview

Having grown up on a dairy farm, I am one of the least likely people to object to the deification of yogurt. However, as a critical thinker, I cannot help but resist the idea (promoted by some health sites) that probiotics are a reasonable alternative to chemotherapy in the treatment of colon cancer. And there are many other equally unhelpful claims being made all the time. Fish oil for ALS anyone?

What amazes me about the “cherry yoga” camp (as my friend Bob Stern likes to call it), is that they aggressively market CAM as “harmless” and “natural.” They point to the warning labels and informed consents associated with science-based medicines as evidence that the alternative must be safer. In reality, many alternative practices are less effective, and can carry serious risks (usually undisclosed to the patient). For your interest, I’ve gathered some examples of risks associated with common alternative practices that have been described by the CDC and in the medical literature:
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Acupuncture for IVF Revisited – More Tooth Fairy Science?

I read this Reuters Health article on MedlinePlus, and then I read the study the article referred to (The impact of acupuncture on in vitro fertilization) and now my head hurts. The study found that acupuncture was not effective in increasing the pregnancy rate (PR) during in vitro fertilization (IVF). As quoted on MedlinePlus, the lead author, Alice Domar, seems to blame her patients (the presumably poor quality of their embryos) rather than acupuncture for the lack of success, and then she recommends using acupuncture even if it doesn’t work. That was bad enough, but “poor quality embryos” is a hypothesis that was actually tested and rejected in the study itself. Has Domar forgotten?

The headline of the MedlinePlus article says “acupuncture doesn’t boost IVF success for all” – suggesting that it boosts success for some? Then the first sentence says the study suggested that acupuncture doesn’t work, period. But wait…

The lead researcher says acupuncture may not have worked in her study because, unlike past research, her investigation wasn’t limited to women who had good quality embryos available for transfer. “I’m wondering if my sample was just not a good sample, in that most of the patients in my study were probably not the best-prognosis patients,”
Domar and her team say the most likely explanation for the lack of an acupuncture effect in their study was the fact that they included many women who didn’t have good quality embryos available for transfer. While acupuncture may help a woman become pregnant after the transfer of a healthy embryo, the researcher noted in an interview, it can’t repair an embryo with chromosomal defects or other abnormalities.

Hold the boat!! In the Discussion section of the paper itself, Domar et al point out that previous research has included mostly patients with good quality embryos. They ask if perhaps acupuncture only works for good quality embryos? They test that hypothesis by separately analyzing the subjects in this study who had good quality embryos. There was no increase in PR with acupuncture in this sub-group; the results were the same as for the entire sample. (more…)

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