(Investigator 66, 1999 May)

It may come as a surprise to some to see Acupuncture listed as a paranormal practice. However, because it is outside the conventions of orthodox medicine I include it in these overviews.

While the ancient Egyptians, South African Bantu and Eskimo practised crude forms of acupuncture, China is regarded as its birthplace. Records of acupuncture date back to 1600 B.C. and the first book on the subject, Hung di Neiging Suwen, was written in about 200 B.C.

Introduced into Europe in the 17th Century, the practice had a low profile until the 1930s. For the next forty years it remained an oriental romantic substitute, then in the 1970s received a tremendous boost following a report by James Reston of the New York Times, who recounted how, while in China recovering from an appendectomy, he was relieved of his considerable pain and distress by acupuncture.

Acupuncture is a healing system which uses fine needles inserted about two millimeters into the skin at various points on the body that have no apparent connection with the ailment or organ. It is claimed to be successful in effecting a cure despite the lack of supporting evidence.

The Chinese discovered that there are about one thousand points on the skin which, when stimulated by the insertion of needles will relieve or cure disease. These points are divided into twelve systems, the points belonging to any one system being connected by an invisible line called a meridian, which in turn, it is claimed, is linked with one of the major organs.


Acupuncture depends on the belief that in the healthy human body there is a continuous flow of vital energy called "Qi" or "Chi’ I", (pronounced chee) it being the product of two great forces or polarities called Yin and Yang. The proponents of acupuncture claim that a healthy body relies on a perfect balance of Yin and Yang, if one or the other becomes too strong or too weak, illness results, if the Yin and Yang energies become separated altogether then the body dies. However, the theoretical basis is faulty, there being no real physical basis. Likewise, meridians have never been found in dissection, and are either fictitious or invisible.

Diagnosis is made by taking the pulse. The pulses at the left and right wrists are each divided into six sections, giving 12 pulses in all, corresponding to the 12 meridians. The sensitivity required in taking the pulse is so fine that not only can the patient's condition be determined but also the past and future predicted. By stimulating the appropriate points on the body with needles the acupuncturist brings the two energies back into balance. A recent innovation has been the electrical stimulation of acupoints.

In the last two decades, Western society has been abandoning conventional medicine more and more due to the side effects of drugs and chemotherapy, turning to acupuncture as an efficacious natural medicine and a relatively cheap alternative.

As an alternative medical treatment, claims made on behalf of acupuncture rely on unsubstantiated hypotheses revolving around energy forms whose existence have also not been proven. In the absence of any scientific validation, acupuncture is therefore, ‘above’ or ‘beyond’ normal.

The questions.

Apologists for acupuncture argue that as it has been around for millennia it must have some intrinsic value, but the longevity of a belief system is no guarantee of its truth – the concept of a geocentric universe, astrology, a flat earth, slavery and the biblical version of creation testify to that erroneous conclusion.

Unlike orthodox medical diagnoses, where an accurate deduction can be made from known correspondences between symptoms and diseases, acupuncture relies on an ancient belief that there are forces which govern everything in the universe including human health. This belief is based on the fact that certain points on the body's surface become tender as a result of illness. When these spots are stimulated or pressed the pain is relieved. However, the fact that there appears to be no correspondence between the points where acupuncture needles are inserted and the ailment, gives the impression of a magical cure, appealing to those who may be disenchanted with conventional therapies.

Although there were initially only 365 acupoints, the number has grown to 2000 in recent years which, apart from making it a complicated therapy to learn, raises the question why, if as the Chinese say, the acupoint disappears with the disease after the insertion of a needle, the number of acupoints has not decreased instead of increasing? While the recognition of previously unknown diseases may explain the increase in numbers, it does not account for illnesses which re-appear in the absence of an acupoint. Numerous efforts have been made to demonstrate the existence of acupoints and meridians, and in France in 1984, De Vernejoul Aldarde and Daras announced that they had detected meridians with the help of radioactive technetium 99. Many doctors and patients were elated at finally having scientific evidence for their existence, however, in a check of the experiments, Professor Otto Prokop, together with the Rostock University Radiology Hospital showed that the radioactive tracer injected into acupuncture points diffused to and were then transported by the nearby veins – and not by meridians.

In his book, Scientific Aspects of Acupuncture, Felix Mann, who had been trained in the traditional Chinese method of acupuncture, has this to say:

"After some years, I felt I had to a certain extent mastered the subject: I knew what the ancients said, and also what was preached in this century in the East and the West. It was only then that I seriously examined the validity of all that I had learnt, only to discover most of it was fantasy.
Acupuncture points do not exist, meridians do not exist, and most of the laws of acupuncture are laws about nonexistent entities."

Acupuncture does have a short term analgesic effect with respect to some ill-defined symptoms such as headaches, depression and vague pains brought on by the stress and strain of everyday living, but the concept of replacing modern anaesthetic technology extant in hospital operating theatres today is simplistic to say the least.

Acupuncture has endured in China for sociopolitical reasons rather than its efficacy as a therapy and underwent a revival along with other traditional Chinese medicines after the establishment of a New China in 1949, as a political device to provide cheap medical care for a huge population insufficiently serviced by doctors trained in Western medicine. It received a boost in 1972, when former president President Nixon visited the People's Republic of China, and his entourage were witness to demonstrations of the effectiveness of acupuncture as an anaesthesia for major surgery. Contrary to widely held belief in the Western world, the patients in the demonstration had been carefully selected and had been given pain killers prior to the surgery.

Although controlled trials of acupuncture have shown that it has no scientific validity, a substantial number will testify to the relief of chronic pain following a series of acupuncture treatments – why?

There are several reasons, among them the self-limiting aspect of many complaints, that is, given time the ailment will get better of its own accord without any form of treatment; the placebo effect, where a belief factor brings about positive results; and a more intimate relationship between the therapist and patient conducive to creating a sympathetic and concerned environment in which the patient is encouraged to take a more positive approach to his problem.

Numerous controlled tests have shown that it does not matter if you put the needles into the acupoints or into placebo points. The results are the same. (Stalker & Glymore p188)

What harm is there then in seeking this type of alternative therapy? Possibly little, provided that the condition falls into the category of psychosomatic or one of the various mild and uncomfortable conditions to which we are all subject from time to time.

The major objections are that there is the possibility of delaying diagnosis of a serious disease and the interfering with effective orthodox medical treatment. It can also raise false hopes in those in the process of coming to terms with a serious illness, and there have been some disturbing reports of acupuncture needles found combined with kidney stones and others that have had to be surgically removed from the chest and abdomen. Some of the traditional acupoints run near, some perilously so, to vital structures, and complications ranging from the minor to the serious and the fatal have been reported. Routine sterile procedures are often absent, opening up another way of transmitting viruses such as an outbreak of infectious hepatitis in Birmingham traced to an acupuncturist.


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[From: A Skeptic's Guide to the New Age, Harry Edwards.]