The explanations that acupuncture gives for itself – chi and all that – collapse into a puddle of silliness when examined closely, and yet acupuncture does seem to sometimes accomplish useful things, especially reducing pain. Whether something is happening at the neurological or cellular level that we don’t understand, or whether it harnesses the body’s amazing ability to alter its own perceptions through the process we call the placebo effect – who knows?
But acupuncture seems to be effective in some cases and it would be silly to ignore that just because we don’t have a good explanation.
This seems to be the thinking of Vermont, where lawmakers used about $150,000 of money obtained from pharmaceutical sees to of that money to study whether the state Medicaid program, which covers low-income residents, should pay for acupuncture to relieve chronic pain as a way to get people off opioids.
The results, reports the Burlington Free-Press, were anecdotally interesting but not scientifically compelling: “About 15 of the participants in the pilot said they used fewer opioids after acupuncture. … The state Medicaid program was unable to confirm that patients had swapped acupuncture for opiates in a statistically significant way. Part of the challenge was the study’s limited scope and short time frame.”
“I don’t think it was a compelling case that acupuncture led to a decrease in opiate use,” said Scott Strenio, the chief medical officer for the Department of Vermont Health Access and a family physician.The state tracked whether the patients in the study changed their use of emergency room visits, doctor visits, psychiatric visits or physical therapy. They used about the same amount of those services before and after acupuncture.
“On the one hand, you have people telling you that went through it that it was really effective,” Strenio said, “and yet in terms of utilization, in the other areas that these patients were having, we just couldn’t show it made a difference.”
That sounds like a slam-dunk on the skeptic “acupuncture is nonsense” side of the ledger and it certainly should give anybody pause who wants to require health insurance to cover acupuncture in hopes that it will help solve our opioid addiction problem.
But I think there is a large enough, and consistent enough, body of anecdotes that many people feel a benefit from having a trusted person jab them with a few small needles. It’s kind of silly, sure, but it might be kind of effective.
One of the problems with use of ‘alternative medicine’ is that an unproven treatment is used instead of a known good and scientifically valid treatment. This can delay proper treatment of the underlying problem resulting in a sicker patient who will cost more to treat later. It also ascribes a positive value within our culture to unproven treatments which undermines trust in science. Until there is valid double blind verified evidence that acupuncture works, it should not be treated as an option when tax or insurance dollars are being spent. Correlation does not equal causation.