The clinic at Academy for Five Element Acupuncture is thriving. This community isn’t spending much time worrying about how acupuncture works because they experience it firsthand, and then they share that experiences with others. Patients have questions in the beginning, they may be skeptical, but their conditions soon convince them to see for themselves what the talk is about. And then, all skepticism vanishes as they start to feel better after years of looking for relief through Western medicine that kept pushing them to take new pills. It’s a beautiful site to walk downstairs to the clinic reception desk and see patients hugging their interns after treatment. Everyone always looks so vibrant and rested when they leave.

Acupuncture has been continuously practiced for over 3,000 years. And yet skepticism persists in the Western world as to its efficacy, due mostly to its perceived lack of discernible cause. Clinical studies designed under the Western scientific framework have not been conclusive in finding out a biological explanation for how acupuncture works. As a result, many have dismissed positive outcomes as the placebo effect.

And yet, acupuncture is steadily gaining ground as a valid complement/alternative to traditional medical approaches regardless of what the scientific community reports. Why? Because too many people are experiencing results. They don’t necessarily need to know why or how. They feel better. Experience speaks louder than a controlled experiment in this case.

A lot of our patients come as referrals from family, friends, or other patients. These are trusted resources. But for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of having your skepticism turned into curiosity, and that curiosity turned into an appointment, I’d like to share two recent articles with you.

The first article appeared in The Atlantic on September 11, 2012. Titled, “Biological Implausibility Aside, Acupuncture Works,” it was written by Lindsay Abrams. The article details a new study conducted by the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center that studied the effectiveness of acupuncture for pain management. It included 18,000 patients and 29 randomized control groups. The results concluded that acupuncture was more effective than the controls in treating pain. Furthermore, “real” acupuncture was found to be more effective than “sham” acupuncture in treating pain (“real” acupuncture refers to practitioners needling acupuncture points, whereas “sham” acupuncture refers to when practitioners needle randomly on the body to simulate acupuncture). So, regardless of  how it works, this study concluded that acupuncture is more than the placebo effect: it works.

The second article picks up where the first article leaves off, questioning why the Western scientific community remains so hostile and reluctant to admitting there’s more to acupuncture than they’ve been willing to allow. Written for the Huffington Post by Mark Schulman, president of Saybrook University, “What Acupuncture Can Teach Us About Science” questions that hostility. According to Schulman, that hostility stems from preconceived notions about science and biomechanics, as well as from the idea that “We don’t know how it works, therefore it must not.”

Schulman calls for an unleashing of the “scientific imagination” that he says gets strangled out of graduate students early on in their training.  He says “there is still plenty of room for [the world] to surprise us.” Maybe it’s time for scientists to observe a little more closely what happens in a treatment room, and leave room for the fact that they may discover something completely outside of the standard paradigm. And maybe, maybe all of those studies linking the body and the mind aren’t so “alternative” after all.  

Compassion and empathy are two qualities that science cannot afford to diminish in health care as they have been (those are “alternative” qualities). There is much to be said for a patient feeling cared for, heard and understood, in a word: believed. That’s part of the reason there’s hugging after appointments in our clinic. Patients appreciate the care they have received and there is trust between patient and intern.

As a new patient, I know I asked my intern dozens of questions about their thought process, point selection, what to expect, etc. I was intensely curious (and most likely a tad annoying). But now, I don’t ask questions. I let them work, and enjoy the fact that the health of my body, mind, and spirit are in capable hands. And I wish that experience for you, however you choose to find it.