Women looking for relief from hot flashes will be disappointed if they think acupuncture will help them.
Arguably, one of the most popular forms of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) being “integrated” with real medicine by those who label their specialty “integrative medicine” is acupuncture. It’s particularly popular in academic medical centers as a subject of what I like to refer to as “quackademic medicine“; that is, the study of pseudoscience and quackery as though it were real medicine. Consider this. It’s very difficult to find academic medical centers that will proclaim that they offer, for example, The One Quackery To Rule Them All (homeopathy). True, a lot of integrative medicine programs at academic medical centers do offer homeopathy. They just don’t do it directly or mention it on their websites. Instead, they offer naturopathy, and, as I’ve discussed several times, homeopathy is an integral—nay, required—part of naturopathy. (After graduation from naturopathy school, freshly minted naturopaths are even tested on homeopathy when they take the NPLEX, the naturopathic licensing examination.) Personally, I find this unwillingness of academic medical centers that offer naturopathy to admit to offering homeopathy somewhat promising, as it tells me that even at quackademic medical centers there are still CAM modalities too quacky for them to want to be openly associated with. That optimism rapidly fades when I contemplate what a hodge-podge of quackery naturopathy is and how many academic integrative medicine programs offer it.
If you believe acupuncturists, acupuncture can be used to treat almost anything. Anyone with a reasonable grasp of critical thinking should recognize that a claim that an intervention, whatever it is, can treat many unrelated disorders is a huge red flag that that intervention is almost certainly not science-based and is probably quackery. So it is with acupuncture; yet, that hasn’t stopped the doyens of integrative medicine at the most respected medical schools from being seduced by the mysticism of acupuncture and studying it. I can’t entirely blame them. I must admit, there was a time when even I thought that there might be something to acupuncture. After all, unlike so many other CAM interventions, acupuncture involved doing something physical, inserting actual needles into the body. However, as I critically examined more and more acupuncture studies, I eventually came to agree with David Colquhoun and Steve Novella that acupuncture is nothing more than a “theatrical placebo.”
Even more interesting to me than the question of whether or not acupuncture is effective for any particular symptom is the meta-question of how acupuncture proponents have managed to promote a treatment with systematically terrible scientific data. A new study provides a fresh example of this, which I will discuss below.
I think the behavior of acupuncturists reflects the fact that there are subcultures within science, where each community has its own standards, culture, and typical practices. You see this reflected in how they conduct their research and support their claims. Chiropractors, for example, have what is in my opinion a very unscientific culture. Their treatments are not science-based; science is an afterthought cherry-picked to support what is ultimately their philosophy.
The culture of acupuncture
The world of acupuncture has its own culture as well. Within this world there are special, very permissive rules of science that allow acupuncture to work for almost anything. One trend is to look for anything that happens locally in the skin when you stick a needle into it and then declare that a “mechanism for acupuncture.” The rules of the acupuncture culture also allow for a shifting definition of what acupuncture actually is, allowing the definition to conform to whatever the evidence shows. It’s a neat and subtle trick that allows acupuncture proponents to completely subvert the purpose of science.
Black Cohosh, an herbal “supplement” (i.e. unregulated drug) remains popular for the treatment of hot flashes and other autonomic symptoms resulting from menopause. This product is yet another good example of the double standard that the supplement industry and ideological promoters are allowed to employ.
The NCCAM website gives this summary:
Black cohosh, a member of the buttercup family, is a plant native to North America. It has a history of use for rheumatism (arthritis and muscle pain) but has been used more recently to treat hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, and other symptoms that can occur during menopause.
While the information is available if you look through the links below, their summary makes no mention of the fact that their own studies show black cohosh is ineffective. In their “at a glance” summary they characterize the scientific evidence as “mixed.”
For years postmenopausal women were told that estrogen was safe. Now they’re being told that estrogen is dangerous. Women are confused. The media haven’t helped; they’ve only increased the confusion and created some myths. Alternative medicine offers the option of herbal remedies they say are safer than estrogen. Suzanne Somers says all of us (even men!) should be taking bioidentical hormones and adjusting our own doses according to how we feel. What’s a woman to do? What does the science really say?
Before the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) of 2002, there were two main reasons for prescribing hormone replacement therapy (HRT): it relieved perimenopausal symptoms like hot flashes, and it helped prevent osteoporosis and fractures. There was good reason to believe that estrogen might also reduce the risk of heart attacks, but very few doctors (if any) ever prescribed it for the sole purpose of reducing heart risks. And doctors were always aware that estrogen and progestins were powerful drugs and were not risk-free.
There was a time in the mid-20th century when estrogen was thought to be a fountain of youth and women were encouraged to start taking it at menopause and continue for the rest of their lives. That attitude quickly changed as we realized these hormones were associated with blood clots, strokes, and increased rates of some cancers. We also learned that unopposed estrogen caused uterine cancer, and women who still had their uterus had to take progestins along with their estrogen. (more…)