Acupuncture is really Nice. (Really!)

Acupuncture is really Nice!


At the start of August the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) published a clinical guidance stating that a number of commonly used drug treatments for chronic pain don’t actually work and shouldn’t be prescribed. These include over the counter drugs such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, as well as harder prescription drugs such as benzodiazepines and opiates. This is because there is little or no evidence that they make any difference to people’s quality of life, pain or psychological distress. There was however evidence that shows that they can cause harm and possible addiction. The draft guideline also says that anti-epileptic drugs including gabapentinoids, local anaesthetics, ketamine, corticosteroids and anti-psychotics should not be offered to people to manage chronic primary pain. Again, this was because there was little or no evidence that these treatments work and could have possible harms.

This is quite a statement from the gold standard purveyor of all things Western medicine, but wait, there’s more. They recommended acupuncture as an alternative treatment. Wow, whatever next? Surely your G.P will soon be performing exorcisms and shamanic rituals at your local surgery!

Obviously I am poking fun at the reluctance of Western medicine to incorporate anything other than drug therapy, but behind this lies a more serious issue. Namely a kind of ontological imperialism that pervades much of Western thought, including medicine. ‘How could anything compete with Science and its double-blind objective experiments?’ The West tends to see other cultures as mired in ignorance and superstition, ones that have yet to emerge into the light of modern science. Their primitive beliefs need to be ushered into the enlightened world of evidence, reason, and truth and their progress is a matter of adopting our superior way of engaging the world.

Let’s take the topical subject of Covid-19 for an apt example. In China over 90% of people treated for the coronavirus had elements of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) incorporated in their treatments. The Chinese Government were happy to prescribe herbal medical formulas that were devised thousands of years ago. However the Western popular and scientific press knew better, reporting that China was using unproven and un-scientific folk medicine in the treatment of this deadly disease. When you dig a little deeper though, you discover research that shows TCM improved the clinical symptoms of patients, reduced the mortality rate, improved the recovery rate, and effectively relieved the operating pressure on the national medical system during critical conditions.

There are many acupuncturists who spend a lot of their lives seeking scientific validation for our occupation, so it must be really pleasing that TCM and acupuncture are beginning to be accepted by Western medical bodies such as NICE, right? Well yes and no. Obviously it’s nice to be proven right sometimes but there is also a danger here. As more and more scientific proof arrives for acupuncture then the more Western medicine will seek to define and control it. This has already happened in other countries such as France, where only a medical doctor is allowed to practice acupuncture. It has also begun to happen here, as only recently I was buying a herbal formula designed to reduce blood pressure and when it was scientifically proven to work, it was banned and could no longer be bought!

At the moment Western medicine doesn’t take acupuncture that seriously and they generally just let us get on with it, but I fear this may change as it becomes more and more accepted. Many of the more traditional energetic, esoteric and spiritual notions will be forgotten about or forcibly dropped. This may mean that more people seek acupuncture to help with their chronic pain which is great, but if we are not careful it may mean you have to go and ask your G.P for something as woo woo as ‘ghost point needling’ and I’m not sure anyone wants to do that!

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