Bad Research or Media Lies? The Problem with Conflicting Health Information
January 26, 2010 by Jeffrey R. Matthews
We don’t know why, but poor health information surrounds us everywhere. Some of it is just down right lies. And the general public has no way of knowing if what they hear, read or see is authentic or bogus.
Is it the media sensationalizing information for a “compelling story?” Is it government agencies in cahoots with some industry looking to quash the competition? What if it’s the companies themselves misrepresenting their goods? Then again, it could be simple ignorance.
I’d like to share an item with you that recently came to my attention. A patient of mine told me about an article on acupuncture she had read in a major newspaper. She said that the article was positive toward acupuncture and mentioned that it is very effective for certain diseases. It also noted that acupuncture was being taken seriously by physicians of Western medicine—and many were now studying it. So far, so good.
But the article went on to say that given the trials conducted by these M.D.s, the only thing important to acupuncture was the insertion of the needles—anywhere on the body! So according to their reports, patients got better by mere virtue of a needle or needles being inserted into their bodies at random locations.
This is not the first time I have heard such claims made by physicians trying to dismiss 3,000 years of Chinese medical history, case studies and theory. It’s their way of saying Chinese medicine is not only childlike but its efficacy is based solely on the placebo effect. This was the understanding I walked away with years ago after seeing a documentary on the subject hosted by Alan Alda.
In this documentary, a physician treated a patient with an illness using a single acupuncture point. The patient felt better. The next week the same patient was treated using a different acupuncture point. Again, the patient felt better. And I remember thinking, “Of course the patient feels better. Both points selected are indicated for her problem.” But the show’s message was: acupuncture must work on the placebo principle since both points worked.
The theory of Chinese medicine is based on relationships in the body between organs, fluids, oxygen, thoughts, etc. And since there are many causes for any given disease and many associated signs and symptoms, to be truly effective the acupuncturist must select acu-points that address not only the main problem, but also the symptoms and secondary problems.
Thus, one could use the “horary” acu-point for that time—the point in the body holding the most qi (energy) for the current time period. Or, they could select the “master point” for the particular problem. Or a combination of points on different meridian channels to make an energetic current in the body. And so on.
So we practitioners say, “Of course many points work for any given illness. They are supposed to! But to get rid of the problem or alleviate the pain for the long term, the correct points must be selected and sequenced. Otherwise, acupuncture becomes a symptom-chasing method of masking problems in the short term. And this is not its domain.
Furthermore, the idea that a needle inserted into the body at any location and at any depth will heal the body is ludicrous. And here’s why.
Acupuncture is a science based on understanding etiology and pathogenesis of disease and the flow of qi (vital energy) in meridians (pathways) and specific location of points on those meridians. Proper depth of needle insertion must also be mastered as well as precise location of insertion. If the needle misses the exact location of an acu-point, the patient will not experience the “arrival of qi.” With no arrival of qi, there is no curative effect. If you miss the point but stay on the actual meridian channel, you will still receive an effect, but not as strongly as if you were to hit the point and channel concurrently. If you insert the needle too far you can puncture an organ or artery. If too shallow, you miss the channel and fail to activate the energy.
This theory and energy anatomy is so important that students of Chinese medicine spend years memorizing and training to locate point accurately, to needle them precisely. Moreover, acupuncturists become intimately familiar with several hundred different points, their effective uses en solo and in combination with others, and their contraindications. If these practices are not adhered to, patients would either fail to get better or they could get much worse.
And so the idea of inserting needles into the body at random to cure any illness or disease is pure fantasy. I’ve had patients tell me they went to another practitioner for their sinus problems, but felt no different after a dozen treatments. After one of my treatments, their sinuses were already draining. They ask me how this is possible when the same points were used by both of us. The answer: the former practitioner missed the points, even by a fraction in any direction, or by incorrect depth of needle insertion.
Acupuncture points are each named and numbered and indicated for specific problems. This is based on thousands of years of clinical experience and millions of case studies. And any acupuncturist will tell you that using points for stomachache will not help neuropathy; that points for acne will not help knee pain.
Thus, inserting needles at random locations to cure anything and everything becomes a non-issue. It is simply a false statement. If it was true, and I wish it were, then everyone who ever went to an acupuncturist would already be cured of all of their health problems. And each time you got a splinter, your body would suddenly be free of disease. For every bee sting, you would have one less arthritic joint.
So we are left with the problem of the media presenting to the public information on health that is bogus, misinformed and potentially hazardous. But is it the fault of the media to sensationalize a story by making it bipartisan? Or is the establishment offering the information and queering it for their benefit?
While the public has no real way of knowing, it is probably safe to assume both parties are at fault. In the end we can only take responsibility for our own health decisions. So if you are considering trying something for your health that is out of the mainstream, do as much research as you can, visit centers, talk to other patients, interview practitioners. Don’t rely on reports by opposing organizations or sensationalized media presentations. They’re only looking to push an agenda or make ratings.
—Dr. Mark Wiley