Ask Dr. Scott – Is acupuncture real medicine?

Dr. Scott Cuthbert is the chief clinician at the Chiropractic Health Center in Pueblo, Colorado, as well as the author of two recent textbooks and over 50 peer-reviewed research articles. PuebloChiropracticCenter.com.


If you would like to ask Dr. Scott a question, email him at: 


Q: Dr. Scott, you’ve talked a lot about alternative medicine. What about acupuncture. Do you recommend it? 

A:  Acupuncture (or TCM, Traditional Chinese Medicine) is a therapeutic approach for balancing the flow and distribution of energy in the meridians of the body by natural methods. It has been used for thousands of years all over Asia. A report in Science stated that a 5,000 year old mummified man from the Ice Age was found with tattoos corresponding to acupuncture points. This evidence suggests that a form of acupuncture may have originated in Eurasia at least 2,000 years earlier than previously thought. 

Acupuncture or TCM today not only garners the attention of the world as a vitalistic philosophy of health but also in terms of pain and pain control. It has been shown repeatedly that acupuncture is effective in treating pain; it works 70% to 85% of the time, far greater than the placebo, which only has about 30% efficiency. (Cherkin et al., 2009) This compares favorably to the effects of potent drugs in treating chronic pain (morphine helps in 70% of these cases). (Beecher, 2005)

Acupuncture has been used for a great variety of illnesses, but it began to fall into obscurity in the 1940s in the United States as people turned to newly emerging, potent, increasingly ailment-specific antibiotics and pharmacology to treat their health problems. (Rubik, 1995) George Soulie de Mourant lists thousands of conditions that are responsive to acupuncture in his opus Chinese Acupuncture. (1994)

Stux & Pomeranz (1989) give detailed reviews of over 200 controlled clinical studies about acupuncture in the West. Pomeranz suggests that “the neurological mechanisms of acupuncture analgesia” are rapidly becoming apparent. A systematic review of acupuncture for the most commonly occurring forms of chronic pain (back, knee, and head) published between 2003 and 2008 found that acupuncture showed significant superiority over sham treatment for back pain, knee pain, and headaches. (Hopton & MacPherson, 2010) In 1973, The American Medical Association Council of Scientific Affairs declared acupuncture an experimental medical procedure. By 1983 the American Osteopathic Association endorsed the use of acupuncture as a part of medical practice.

The American Chiropractic Association’s College of Chiropractic Acupuncture polled 60,000 U.S. chiropractors and found that over 80% are using acupuncture in some form. Acupuncture is now a post-graduate course through 75% of the chiropractic colleges, and is board-approved around the country.

Many Western-trained physicians see the benefits TCM has to offer patients and include acupuncture — at least on a limited basis — as part of their practice. In modern Western natural health care, we find many similarities between complementary and alternative medical approaches and that of TCM physician. In functional health care we are concerned with the control of organs, glands, and tissues, primarily by way of the nervous system. Rather than give a patient a drug to influence an organ, we find out why the organ is not functioning as it was designed to and then release that interference. This correlates with the TCM doctor’s attempt to balance “Chi” within the body. 

Q:  But how does acupuncture work?

A: The National Institutes of Health on Acupuncture (JAMA, 1998) stated “there are other situations, such as addiction, stroke rehabilitation, headache, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia, myofascial pain, osteoarthritis, low-back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and asthma, in which acupuncture may be useful as an adjunct treatment or an acceptable alternative or be included in a comprehensive management program.” 

The NIH Consensus Panel also spoke to acupuncture’s ability to relieve pain:

“There is clear evidence that acupuncture is efficacious for…various pain problems. There is evidence for efficacy for postoperative dental pain. There are reasonable studies (although sometimes only single studies) showing relief of pain with acupuncture on diverse pain conditions such as menstrual cramps, tennis elbow and fibromyalgia. This suggests that acupuncture may have a more general effect on pain.”

Dr. Bruce Pomeranz, working at the University of Toronto, offers detailed summaries of modern research into the potential mechanisms of acupuncture. Pomeranz also discovered a relationship between acupuncture and the naturally occurring chemicals in the body known as endorphins. This relationship between acupuncture pain-relief and endorphins caused a great deal of excitement in the field of the scientific investigation of acupuncture. (Kaptchuk, 2000)

In acupuncture, the treatment points for a meridian imbalance are frequently found on the opposite side and even the opposite end of the body from that of the diseased organ or area of symptoms. In a number of research studies one of these distant treatment sites can have an effect in one or two seconds. (Cuthbert, 2014) This speed of conduction leaves the nervous system as the primary mechanism of TCM. Acupuncture points may actually be areas of high-density nerve endings. The neurological theories of TCM – and the relationship of TCM with the muscular system — suggest themselves. (Mann, 1992) Much of the neurological research done by Pomeranz and colleagues brought acupuncture methodologies and outcome studies into the mainstream scientific world. 

The nervous system offers another physiological possibility for explaining the clinical phenomena and effects of acupuncture treatment, further bridging eastern and western and specifically chiropractic approaches. Acupuncture is by no means a panacea or a cure-all; however, it is an important part of the total energy pattern, control mechanism, and normal health maintenance picture. It places in the doctor’s hands one more tool for promoting and maintaining normal health. There are many superb acupuncture physicians in Pueblo…you might call their offices and ask questions about this approach to healing.

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