Sham Healthcare: The Real History of Acupuncture


While acupuncture is widely accepted as a viable method of healthcare, the available evidence shows it has no effect at all. An academic study was conducted in the Department of Internal Medicine at Technische University in Munich, Germany. Thirty-four healthy volunteers received two laser acupuncture treatments at three acupuncture points LI4 (hégu), LU7 (liéque), and LR3 (táichong); once by a functional laser and once using an inactive laser in randomized order. The only method of tracking client response to acupuncture is called the MGH Acupuncture Sensation Scale (MASS) and this method is simply asking the client how they felt from each acupuncture treatment. In this study, the treatment with the inactive laser got the same positive response from all 34 participants, even people that have never had an acupuncture treatment before in their lives. If a laser that isn’t even turned on elicits the same positive response as targeted, laser-accurate pressure on the traditionally-used acupuncture sites of the body, this method cannot be considered a scientific method of accruing data that can be used to gauge effectiveness. Simply telling people they are getting acupuncture is enough to get them to say it is effective.

Practitioners of acupuncture claim this field of healthcare works by interrupting the flow of a force called “Qi” using pressure or needles. “Qi” has never been observed or measured, therefore, no truly scientific method could ever have been produced to show or even suggest it exists. Belief in the existence of “Qi,” an unobservable, non-measurable force, is perpetuated by those who claim it is the mechanism by which acupuncture works and acupuncture is their primary source of income. Any data interpreted using MASS by someone who has a financial interest in proving their field of healthcare works would be skewed in favor of effectiveness by that interest.

Contrary to the popular belief that acupuncture as we know it has been around for “thousands of years,” it actually has its roots in 18th century France. The Chinese did practice a version of acupuncture but it did not include any mention of “Qi” and had nothing in common with the modern practice except its use of a type of needle. Archaeologists who discovered these needles in ancient Chinese sites reported the needles to be quite large (up to a foot long) and there were a number of skulls near the needles with holes in them, suggesting people had died by this method. The modern methods we see today are quite different and were invented by French doctors who resurrected a vague Chinese tradition using much smaller needles that wouldn’t kill the patients. They also added their own techniques, including an explanation for acupuncture’s success being a manipulation of “Qi.”

An imitation of the French version was introduced to England in 1821 by Edward Joukes, a male midwife who administered needles, using the French method, to a woman who was complaining of “pains in her loins.” There was no study of her condition after the needles were administered. After a French doctor, Chevalier Sarlandiere, claimed this account of a French method having been a success in a French medical journal, doctors in America also began to espouse its benefits. Franklin Bache, the great-grand son of Benjamin Franklin, discussed the practice in various medical journals across America in 1826, giving it a positive review based on the article in the French journal. None of these Americans actually tried the method or tracked its success rate. As the French version was reputed to have come from “ancient Chinese traditions,” American doctors then began to ask Chinese settlers about the details of the method. Poor but smart Chinese settlers added to the French details and then began to offer this service for money, as it paid well, caused no harm, and elicited a positive response from the clients. This is where modern acupuncture became part of Chinese culture and the Chinese names for the acupuncture points were adopted.

A closer look at the history and the various styles of acupuncture will reveal that it is a relatively new phenomenon and it has no common method. There are Japanese, Thai, Korean and Indian versions, most of which were all invented in the last few decades. Some styles call for the insertion of needles, some use touch and others simply wave their hands over “energy meridians.” Practitioners from all these schools of acupuncture claim clinical efficacy, but none have proven its worth under rigorous scientific examination.

It is also worth noting that acupuncturists mainly claim to treat illnesses that are psychosomatic (impotence), intermittent (headaches, acne) or sicknesses that will always clear up eventually (the common cold). There are also a variety of endorphins and steroids (cortisol) that are released when the skin is punctured that will block some pain for a short duration of time; however, this can be likened to kicking someone in the knee to stop them from feeling their headache.

With no evidence for the existence of “Qi,” no common practice to evaluate, little historical evidence of a cultural phenomenon and empirical evidence contradicting its usefulness, acupuncture should not be allowed into modern healthcare. As patients expect to trust the advice of their medical community, discussing acupuncture frankly and honestly is a necessity in a field propagated by integrity. This editorial has been completely honest with its readers, whether they like it or not. Can we be honest with ourselves when we are presented with documentation that challenges our belief structures? Yes, we can.

Leave a Reply