The Truth Behind Acupuncture: Does It Or Doesn’t It Work?

Needles in back.

Here’s a riddle for you: what can help treat mental illnesses, digestive issues, chronic pain in different parts of the body, and neurological complaints like migraines? If you said ‘acupuncture‘, then ten points for you! That’s correct.

Acupuncture is really getting a reputation for being an almost miracle-cure-all. But as with everything else in our culture, acupuncture has its loud advocates and its loud detractors. It’s getting hard to ignore, because it’s something that so many people are passionate about. The question is, who do you believe? In short: does acupuncture actually work?

Where Does Acupuncture Come From?

Acupuncture dummy.

The Origins Of Acupuncture.

Acupuncture has 2500-year-old roots in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The idea of it is that when a person suffers from an illness, they are actually suffering from an imbalance of qi (pronounced Chee), which is loosely translated as ‘life force’ or ‘energy flow’ – basically, it’s an energy that brings what you need into your body and pushes out what you don’t need. The remedy for this imbalance is to place fine needles into points of the body called ‘meridians‘. These are the points where qi has a habit of getting caught up.

Think of it as a car accident that’s blocking two of the five lanes. This kind of build up causes a kind of ‘qi traffic-jam’, causing the person to become ill. The needles act as the cleaning crew, opening up the lanes and ultimately leading to faster recoveries.

A student of history would be completely justified in telling you that, while physicians in the far east spoke of this concept qi, in the west they spoke much the same way about an imbalance of humors (bodily fluids). This imbalance of humors was remedied by a brutally archaic practice known as bloodletting. In some cases, a person could have up to 80% of their blood drained for something as trivial as a fever (obviously making the situation worse). The correlation between qi and humors is hence the root of a majority of skepticism about acupuncture.

What Differentiates Qi From Humors?

Red blood cells travelling inside body.

Acupuncture and blood circulation.

People often lump humor and qi together as the same thing. The ancient idea was that there’s something other than blood that vitalizes the body, which basically means that we are all made up of both physical and spiritual sources, both of which are essential for our health and well-being. Who can blame a society for believing that spiritual deficiencies add up to physical maladies?

Let’s say a friend of yours says something that really upsets you. The next day you see them with a bandage. They complain to you that they cut their hand yesterday and it’s really hurting. You might feel bad, but most people can’t help thinking, “Well, serves her right. She hurt me, and now she’s hurting for it.”

Without even doing it consciously, we connect the fact that there was something wrong with her spirit – which was why she said something she shouldn’t have – and therefore, she was punished with a physical blow.

This sort of thinking isn’t much different, it’s just taken to a different level when it comes to acupuncture. The spiritual imbalance is responsible for the physical malady, and that is why targeting the spiritual force (qi) can help to heal the physical symptoms, like chronic pain or depression.

The difference, seemingly, between humors and qi, is that qi has been adapted to be understood in western culture as circulation. As far as circulation goes, there’s quite a bit of science to back the idea that better circulation improves recovery among other aspects of life, and is deeply rooted in science. In fact, this is the basic idea of deep tissue massage (to improve circulation).

Cui Bono From Acupuncture?

Woman getting massage on her face.

Acupuncture for blood circulation.

The question most often asked in such debates as this one is,’who benefits?’ Meaning, who are the people that do believe in acupuncture, who are the people that wouldn’t go near it? And what makes them believe in each side?

The people who seem to gain from it are, obviously, the acupuncturists. They’re getting paid for your acupuncture, so of course they’re believers. But what about the detractors, the people who don’t believe in acupuncture? I mean think about it, what – if anything – do they have to gain? Keeping in mind all the backlash they get, being an acupuncture skeptic is a thankless job. Based on these criteria alone,  these skeptics should be believed, precisely because they have nothing to gain.

So really, we should be believing the nay-sayers, because they seem to have nothing to gain. But maybe it’s not necessarily about gain. And if it’s not about gain, what could it possibly be about? To answer this question I’d like to give an example from history.

Is The Acupuncture Debate Simply Conflicting Beliefs?

What made someone choose to be a communist in czarist Russia? And what was the merit to being a capitalist in communist Russia? The answer is that it’s simply what they believed in, and people are willing to go to extreme lengths for what they believe – they’re even willing to die. Just because someone doesn’t agree with acupuncture, you can’t just believe him because “Oh, he has nothing to gain”. True, he might not have what to gain, but if his belief is that acupuncture doesn’t work, then he’s going to fight ’til the end for his belief. Nothing is going to change his mind.

Funnily enough, I peeked at the Wikipedia page for acupuncture just to see what it said. What I expected to find and what I actually found were so different that it’s worth mentioning. I expected to find a detailed explanation of the ins and outs of how acupuncture works, where it originated, how it originated, etc. What I actually found was a short article describing acupuncture as a “sham” and a “pseudoscience”. Ironically, this Wikipedia article helped me decide (swallow your coffee – a spit take is coming) in favor of the legitimacy of acupuncture.

My thought process went something like this: the purpose of this Wikipedia article was to say that if even as disreputable a source as Wikipedia says that it’s hokey,  it therefore must be a sham. However, I’ve already done enough research to know that it’s not as cut and dry as the article suggested; that there are physicians on both sides of the acupuncture table. A  truly objective piece would have at least suggested this. Instead, the article came out ‘guns a blazing’, immediately calling acupuncture a ‘pseudoscience‘, even though there have been countless studies proving that, at the very least, acupuncture is somewhat useful.


To me, it sounded like religious fervor, or political fervor, or in this case, simply ideological fervor. The point being that evidence doesn’t sway the opinion of the detractors, as I said above.  To my mind, the ideology of these people is that nothing from antiquity can be of any practical use, other than a lesson of what not to do. Yet as Star Wars fans are well aware, only the dark side deals in absolutes. There is evidence suggesting that acupuncture does work to ease chronic pain, promote sleep, improve cancer recovery, and for women’s health. Of course, it is always advised to work only with a licensed and experienced acupuncturist.

Personally, I’m choosing to disregard the skepticism as white noise. It’s fundamentally flawed by incorrectly being compared to bloodletting, and the thought that if something is old-fashioned, it’s not for us. The assumption is that these connections are enough to disqualify it as legitimate – but we all know what happens when we assume.

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