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So this article on the NewScientist website really chapped my ass.

It cites the publication of a new study that outlines successful use of acupuncture to treat spinal injuries induced in rats.  Now, I’m not a doctor, and I’m unable to access the full-text of the study in question.  My suspicions are that some qualified party will cite methodological issues, or more likely, the study will remain a footnote  in light of the overwhelming weight of evidence in favor of the interpretation that acupuncture possesses no therapeutic benefit beyond that of placebo. (Maybe not.  We’ll see, but I doubt it.)

From the article:

Acupuncture’s scientific credentials are growing. Trials show that it improves sensory and motor functions in people with spinal cord injuries.

Well, not really.  For a great review of the current literature regarding acupuncture and an even greater deal of irate bitching about a fishy article written by The YOU Docs, Drs. Mehmet Oz and Mike Roizen, I highly suggest reading an article on the subject written by Dr. Mark Crislip over at Science-Based Medicine.  In it he outlines the results of numerous systematic reviews of the medical literature as well as dubious claims made about the mechanisms by which acupuncture works its supposed magic.  It appears that Drs. Oz and Roizen are attracted to the mysticism surrounding traditional Chinese medicine.

(Harriet Hall has also written a very thorough overview of acupuncture.)

Furthermore, the scientific paper to which the NewScientist links in the blockquote (different than the paper the article is discussing) does not deal directly with traditional acupuncture but with electroacupuncture in which an electrical impulse is introduced to the nerve.  This is an actual intervention that will induce some type of physiological response and cannot be considered acupuncture as Dr. Crislip asserts in his piece.  It seems dishonest to equate the two since there is a big difference between simply placing a needle into someone’s skin and running an electrical current into their body.

Of further interest is another post by Dr. Steven Novella regarding the placebo effect, one of the more misunderstood health-related phenomena due to the complexities of interpreting study results.  The standard perception goes like this:  you walk into the doctor complaining of pain, the doctor gives you a sugar pill that you think is a pain reliever, and because you believe you’ve received treatment, your brain responds in kind and ramps up the production of natural healers, presumably the immune system.  Voila!  You’re better, and you didn’t have to ingest any dangerous drugs.

As you’ll see when reading Dr. Novella’s article and the mostly excellent discussion on the comment board that follows, the placebo effect doesn’t really work that way.  Most of it can be chalked up to study artifacts, bad study design, and reporting biases on the part of both doctors and patients.  Without an objective way of measuring pain or nausea or other types of discomfort, many of these studies are hindered by the need for patients to fill out a pain evaluation, the results of which can vary greatly from study to study.

You’ll notice all of my links are from Science-Based Medicine.  So sue me.  They devote their time and energy to evaluating dubious claims and pseudoscience, and they are an absolutely fantastic resource for anyone interested in the complicated study of medicine.  At the very least, reading many of these posts should help elucidate why all-or-nothing claims made by various pseudoscientific outfits are silly and don’t incorporate a nuanced approach to the business of getting things as right as possible.

This article is cross-posted at Foolish Human.