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reader comments: acupuncture

17 Jun 2005
After reading several of your comments about acupuncture, I can only say that what works for one person, may not work for another. This is true in all medical treatments, drug, physical therapy, surgery, and Western medicine, Eastern Medicine.

In my case I have had acupuncture “fix” what several orthopedic doctors were unable to do or achieve.

In the Spring of 1982 I severely injured my leg and knee during a softball game. I went to several doctors had several X-rays taken and received physical therapy, anti-inflammatory drugs, and a muscle relaxer. Nothing was working and in the Fall of 1982, I was helping a friend move, and we had to go down a steep hill to reach the truck. On the 3rd trip down the hill, a muscle “snapped” and with extreme pain I collapsed to the ground. I went back to the doctors and again received physical therapy, anti-inflammatory drugs, and a muscle relaxer. The pain was reduced, but was always there and inhibited my ability to do many things. My knee was always hurting me and also affecting my sleep.

A year later I heard from a fellow worker of an acupuncturist by the name of Tack C. Ng, in Wappingers Falls, NY. I was very skeptical of this type of treatment, but after the last orthopedic surgeon told me that I would have to live with the condition for the rest of my life, I decided to try the acupuncturist. My examination by Dr. Ng was so simple I wasn’t sure that he could tell my problem. All he did was have me strip to my underwear and then took a Polaroid picture of me. After examining me he showed me the picture and said to me, put your feet together and look a your right knee. When I did this I noticed the right knee was turned almost 45 degrees to the left instead of facing outward. Dr. Ng said to me, the problem is not your knee, but your hip has a lateral rotation and this is what is causing your knee to be in the wrong position and hurt. I was amazed! All the so-called expert doctors were treating me for a knee injury and the problem was in my hip. All the X-rays and examinations they had performed didn’t reveal this problem.

Dr. Ng had me lay on the table face up and then placed several needles in my leg and hip area. Several minutes went by and suddenly, my leg involuntarily moved in a jerking motion. About 5 minute more passed and again my leg involuntarily moved. After the treatment was over I got off the table and Dr. Ng said to me: "look at your knees." I did and was astonished to see that now my right knee was facing forward and was no longer on a 45-degree angle. I saw Dr. Ng three more times and have never had a recurrence.

Several years later I sent my mother to him for a persistent back pain after falling and hitting her back on the rim of the bathtub. After two treatments he told her that she had damage to the spine and had to see an orthopedic surgeon. After seeing the surgeon, it was determined that she had hit her spine on the bathtub and had caused the bone to be pushed in. It was recommended that she have surgery and have this part of the spinal column opened. She did and this resulted in complete recovery.

My only reason for sharing this is to “enlighten” you. Not all acupuncturists are the same, as neither are all doctors. Because you don’t understand the functions of the body, doesn’t mean that someone else doesn't. You need to keep an open mind.

Anthony D'Egidio
Boca Raton, Fl

reply: After reading your story, I'm sure there would be many people with knee pain who'd like to find this Dr. Ng. I've never heard of an acupuncturist who could cause a 45 degree turn in a knee alignment by sticking a few needles into the leg. That's quite phenomenal. Of course, a skeptic might say that Dr. Ng's suggestion to you that your problem was the way your knee was pointing led you to subconsciously rotate your knee. I can't say for sure that that's what happened but I do know that the pain from bursitis in my right knee that hits me sometimes when I am driving is instantly relieved when I rotate my leg to the left.

I googled Dr. Ng of Wappingers Falls and was surprised to find he's still practicing 23 years after treating you. He's listed as Tack C NG, 30 DeLavergene Avenue, Wappingers Falls, NY. His phone is listed as 845-298-8509. Seems he can also help you quit smoking.

29 Dec 2000
Time for some hearsay...

I was reading over all the comments about acupuncture, and was amazed. I think the whole chi yin/yang thing more religious than scientific, and thus will never be proven. Deal with it people, I have with my personal religious beliefs.

But I have co-worker who got some impromptu AP (I'm tired of worrying if I'm spelling it right) from a physical instructor when he sprained his knee. The swelling and pain stopped, but he was then told to get home and rest for the rest of the day. Why? he asked. Because all AP did was "turn off" a nerve, thus easing the pain, but also over-riding the body's natural defense against injury. If he had continued, he would have damaged his knee more.

Now, there is no evidence for this. It would explain a great many things. I am inclined to believe it as it is the only argument I can reasonably believe to be true (I know from experience that when I bang by arm just right, it goes dead for a while, maybe same principle).

All that chi explanation is based on faith and personal belief, and like religion, is personal and doesn't transfer well to others not raised with the belief already. Doesn't mean it isn't true, but you will never prove it, so stop trying. Stick to what you might be able to prove and cut your losses. Testimonials are not proof.

Have a nice day! 
Gordon Thomas

reply: I agree. Testimonials are not proof.

28 Dec 2000 
I, too, do not believe in acupuncture, and will stop going to the acupuncturist when it stops working.

I had a plantar wart removed by surgery. A year later, another one appeared. Not wanting to go through the surgery again, I procrastinated, and it got bigger and bigger. Then my back went out, and I went to the acupuncturist. Two days later, my back was on the mend. Two weeks later, the plantar wart was gone.

My acupuncturist explains that the procedure seems to have some effect of improving the efficiency of the immune system. That makes some sense.

He also noted the difference between western medical approaches and the eastern approach. Asians historically have accepted that acupuncture works, and have developed explanations that fit - hence the chi - Ying - yang metaphors. Western medicine derives treatments from empirical studies; therefore, these treatments must have been "proven".

This physician has studied both approaches. He holds a Medical Doctor certificate and certificates for proficiency in acupuncture.
David Whitehead

reply: Because the second wart appeared a year after the surgery, you wouldn't think of making a causal connection between the two, but since your back "was on the mend" two days after acupuncture, you see a causal connection. There could be one, but I doubt if it has anything to do with "improving the efficiency of the immune system," since back pain is not usually caused by an immune system deficiency.

The wart was gone two weeks after the acupuncture and you see a causal connection, but you don't mention whether you did anything else for the wart in those two weeks. I bring this up because while looking for some information on plantar warts I found the following:

My daughter had a plantar wart when she was 6. We treated it in much the same way you did with the same results. We also had liquid nitrogen treatments to burn it off with some success. Nothing was fool proof.

I then read Andrew Weil's suggestion for visualization. For my daughter this involved visualizing little Smurfs (a cartoon character if you haven't heard of them) marching through her blood stream and digging away at the wart. We went through a little visualization routine just before bed each night for about a week. We also used Dr. Scholl's plantar wart remover at the same time, so you can be the judge of what worked.

The acupuncture may have cured your wart, but I would think that one session would be about as effective as a few cuts and bruises from a fall for kick-starting your immune system enough to combat a wart. Anyway, I'm glad you didn't have to have another surgery.

David Whitehead replies:

This physician tells me that recovery from these back injuries is accomplished by the body's healing processes. Repairing soft tissues and killing a wart seem to be similar in this regard. I'm interested to know if the same biological systems are involved. If so, the claim that acupuncture invigorates these systems may have some merit. I did nothing else for the wart during those two weeks. It could have started to go away before the acupuncture, but I didn't notice that. Do those kinds of warts just die on their own? My perception of the thing was that it was flourishing - it had been there for several months and had reproduced many times - and it was starting to make me limp. Then, after the acupuncture, it just vanished.

reply: The wart is caused by a virus; it is highly unlikely that the back problem was viral.

I've had a wart that just went away on its own, but not a plantar wart. 

Another interesting claim the physician/acupuncturist made: some people have a higher affinity for, or susceptibility to, acupuncture. Apparently, I am one of those people.

reply: I'll bet he tells that to all his successes!

The Smurf treatment? That's great! Although I'm glad I don't need to go to that extreme.

What about this idea of the eastern "scientific" approach: It works, we don't know why, but we devise a metaphor of meridians, chi blockages, and ying/yang balance, to fit the perceived results. If it works, and the metaphor allows us to repeat the treatment successfully, then cannot the metaphysical pronouncements of some acupuncturists be ignored? I mean: people will say anything for attention.

reply: Sounds good to me. The actual origins of chi, meridians, etc., and their connection to acupuncture is not known, however.

23 Dec 2000
Some of your information regarding acupuncture is false. As you are a seeker of knowledge I am sure you would like to consult the American Medical Association, and the United Nations World Health Organization which have recognized acupuncture as being a scientifically proven effective treatment--although the mechanism is not clear, some think it may stimulate the lymphatic system or other aspects of the immune system--in at least 200 specific medical conditions. In addition, your skeptic belief--as it is no more founded on scientific evidence than its opposite--that the scientifically observable effects of acupuncture are merely due to 'psychological expectations' and 'placebo' effect is highly dubious. Someone with even an elementary knowledge of acupuncture would be familiar with the fact that acupuncture has not only had scientifically verifiable effects in humans but since its beginnings, has been used effectively in veterinary (on animals) applications--historically it was widely used on war horses in China, then later on other livestock, and finally in companion animals. I do not see how an animal such as a horse or a cow or a dog could harbor beneficial 'psychological expectations' regarding being stuck with needles, or harbor such a 'placebo effect'.

The fact is that acupuncture is scientifically proven effective treatment for over 200 specific medical conditions.

The existence of chi is disputable.

But, acupuncture deserves your respect at least in those many cases where it is scientifically proven and recognized by the AMA and the UNWHO as effective, at least until you can scientifically refute this evidence.

I understand that there are many frauds out there--yes there are frauds out there claiming to be acupuncturists, especially in this country since acupuncture is new and there are no established traditions, inadequate expertise, inadequate 'peer review', etc..

Perhaps there is no chi, perhaps acupuncture is just the accumulation of many centuries of trial-and-error, but in many cases it does work, and as a man concerned with upholding the naked truth I think you owe it to the public to change your web page to reflect this fact.

Just because you can't explain it, or just because their explanation is wrong, doesn't change the fact that it is an effective treatment for some conditions--a fact, a treatment which shouldn't be denied simply on intellectual loyalties or beliefs contrary to scientific proof.

As someone who is studying Western Science ( cell biology, genetics), it is frustrating when things are beyond our explanation or when people neglect to think critically, but that doesn't mean that just because science can't explain it that it doesn't work: gunpowder was a fact long before the laws of combustion were understood.

George Jones

reply: You need to learn the difference between a claim and a fact. I know there are dozens of studies which claim that acupuncture is an effective remedy for depression, allergies, asthma, arthritis, bladder and kidney problems, constipation, diarrhea, colds, flu, bronchitis, dizziness, smoking, fatigue, gynecologic disorders, headaches, migraines, paralysis, high blood pressure, PMS, sciatica, sexual dysfunction, stress, stroke, tendonitis and vision problems. I mention this claim in the article.

I find it more than interesting that you do not mention by name a single study to support your claim that acupuncture has been  shown to be a "scientifically proven effective treatment...in at least 200 specific medical conditions." Nor do you reveal where you got the notion that the American Medical Association says that this claim is a fact.

Your focus on whether science can explain how acupuncture works is misplaced. First, it must be established what is meant by "works." Then, it must be established that it works. After that, explanations as to how it works become appropriate. All this is addressed in the article. In case you missed it, I mention that some researchers think that acupuncture stimulates nerve endings, releasing endorphins. I also link to an article which asserts "A team of researchers at the University of California-Irvine and a university in China has found that acupuncture activates a group of nerve cells called the endorphin system to lower blood pressure and treat some types of heart disease." This is a long way from "proven effective for 200 specific medical conditions."

10 Oct 2000 
Several years ago I had the flu. I've never been so sick in my life and I found it hard to believe that I could live to my late 20's without ever having had the flu before. Every muscle in my body ached. Ache is too mild. Well, I recovered slowly but the flu seemed to have settled in my arms. Weird, I know, but that's what I kept thinking. I could use the hand of one arm but the arm itself hurt when moved, and the other arm was okay but the hand hurt when moved. This subsided after a couple of weeks but one arm still hurt so much that it was all I thought of day and night.

My symptoms did not match carpal tunnel syndrome so I convinced myself that it was a "pinched nerve". After suffering for a few more weeks I got a referral to a neurologist. He confirmed that I did not have CTS, and even though my GP had ruled this out I was still relieved. CTS meant surgery. The neurologist stuck a needle in a couple of places in my hand and arm and looked at some monitor. He said "well, it's not a pinched nerve". He gave me a prescription and off I went. I never had it filled. Know why? My arm stopped hurting. Did the needles do it? Nah. It was being told that after weeks of being sick (the flu, then the arm pain), and working myself up to basically one tense muscle mass that there was nothing wrong with me. The pain was real, I didn't imagine it. But I think my tension, or the why I was in constant awareness of the arm pain made me hold it in a certain way or not move it, whatever, that kept the pain there. How many acupuncture customers do the same thing? They get relief because they believe it works, then work themselves up before the next appointment. The reader who responded that once a quarter seemed to keep his ailment at bay. The human mind works in mysterious ways.

17 Aug 2000 
I enjoy your web site, and generally find it educational, enlightening, entertaining, and an invaluable resource. I would like to make a few comments, however, with regard to your discussion of acupuncture.

As several other respondents have noted, it is unreasonable to reject acupuncture out-of-hand simply because chi theory has historically been invoked to explain it s effects. The effectiveness of acupuncture and its mechanism of action are two separate issues, and should be dealt with as such.

The difficulty actually stems from your definition of acupuncture. You define acupuncture as a traditional Chinese medical technique for manipulating chi (ch'i or qi) in order to balance the opposing forces of yin and yang. Since you define acupuncture in terms of chi, you can refute acupuncture by refuting chi. I would suggest, however, that the goal of acupuncture is not to manipulate chi but to improve health; chi manipulation is simply a supposed explanatory mechanism, one which may or may not turn out to have an objective basis in reality.

My dictionary (Webster s New Collegiate 1981) defines acupuncture as an orig. Chinese practice of puncturing the body (as with needles) to cure disease or relieve pain. When defined in this way, we see that acupuncture is the practice of sticking needles into people, and thus must be evaluated on the merits of needle sticking. If it turns out that sticking needles into people can have positive health effects, acupuncture will indeed be vindicated. If it further turns out that sticking needles into people using traditional needle techniques and point combinations is more effective than other ways of sticking needles into people, then traditional acupuncture will be vindicated. However, even if we do establish that the practice of acupuncture can have health benefits, we have still said nothing about the mechanism, which is really what the concept of chi speaks to.

Chi may turn out to be a chimera metaphysical claptrap, balderdash, stuff and nonsense. It may turn out to be a useful heuristic device a poetic and metaphorical way to describe muscle tension, skin temperature, and other quite down-to-earth physical processes and correspondences. Or, it may turn out that the ancient Chinese were on to something, and that chi corresponds to some subtle but physical force, perhaps bioelectromagnetism, that we do not as yet fully appreciate. Chi may turn out to be a useful concept in our efforts to understand acupuncture, or it may turn out to be completely superfluous. And in the end, once we are confident that we fully understand what chi is and how it relates to acupuncture, acupuncture itself will continue to be exactly as effective (or ineffective, as the case may be) as it has always been.

In short, it is not valid to define acupuncture in terms of a postulated metaphysical mechanism of action, and then discredit acupuncture by discrediting the mechanism. Such an analysis does not speak to the effectiveness of acupuncture (that is, whether sticking needles in people does any good), but only to the validity of the suggested mechanism. Certainly both the effectiveness of acupuncture and its mechanism of action are important issues. I suggest that the discussion of acupuncture on your web site would benefit were you to more clearly distinguish between the two.
Dennis Kitchen

reply: I make it clear what I mean by acupuncture, and the meaning I use is much more complete than the one in your dictionary. Most readers should be able to understand from what I have written that acupuncture in the loose sense of sticking needles into the skin is what is being tested in the Western world. Belief in chi is irrelevant to these studies.

19 Jun 2000 
Your article suggests that acupuncture, while becoming more and more popular in the West, is being practised less and less in China. This is far from true. In fact the Chinese are trying very hard to combine western and traditional Chinese medicine, as was advocated by Mao Zedong. There are hospitals devoted to this purpose. They are also investigating the physical nature of qi (chi). Considerable efforts are being made to sort the wheat from the chaff, thus the banning of the fraudulent Falun Gong cult, which incorporates traditional zen and bagua (a kind of martial art,) jumbled up with superstition, pseudo- and anti-science and worship of the cult's founder Li Hongzhi.

Julian Clegg

18 May 2000
Your entry on "acupuncture" implies that the effectiveness of the practice is simply a placebo effect. It is my understanding that there is increasing use of acupuncture in veterinary medicine. That would, I would think, call the placebo hypothesis into doubt. (Even if the animals' owners believe in the practice, I don't see how that could affect the animals--unless of course you believe in inter-species telepathy...)

Gordon Kaswell

reply: First, I don't claim that the effectiveness of acupuncture is simply a placebo effect. I don't claim it is effective at all for most of the things it is supposedly able to cure.

As for animals: how does an animal tell you whether acupuncture is "effective"? Vets use all kinds of tricks to make their human customers think they're getting their money's worth. The fact that acupuncture is used by some veterinarians does not mean it is effective. No vet goes to veterinary school to learn acupuncture, so if acupuncture is used, it is most likely used in conjunction with traditional therapies and drugs. True, one can't prove it wasn't the acupuncture that helped the animal get back on all fours, but we can't prove it was, either.

07 Jul 1999
It seems the "acupuncture works" defense could equally be applied to gurus. In India snake-bite victims are usually taken to the local guru (magic man). About 90 percent of the time the snake-bite victim makes a full recovery. Gurus work! Or do they...

About 90 per cent of snake bites in India are from snakes that are not venomous. Provided the guru does nothing to harm the victim, he or she will make a full recovery. The other 10 percent always die.

It's not good enough to look at the outcome and say "it works" (at least most the time). Better information could save 90 percent of Indian snake bite victims a trip to the guru. The others 10 per cent could save much more.

By the way, the snake bite anecdote come from the movie "guru busters" which I'm pleased to see gets a mention in your dictionary.
Matt Crowe
Sydney, Australia

31 Aug 1999 
Regarding the recently posted reader comment by Simone Kissane regarding accupuncture and chi dated Aug. 23, 1999, and your reply:

In defenses of metaphysical claims, I often encounter the argument that some particular posited metaphysical phenomenon is not an invalid construction or improvable proposition merely because it cannot be observed. The defender ventures that because atoms or electromagnetic fields cannot be seen, and yet the scientific "establishment" grants them reality, it is merely a case of prejudice that we do not also grant to chi, body meridians, crystal power, the astral plane, god, or the like, the same degree of existence. Putting aside the finer points of logical fallacy often present in such arguments, it has always been one of my pet peeves, as an atomic physicist, to see that people aren't really aware that one can "see" atoms. (I think there's a lot of science information with bearing on areas of metaphysical speculation that hasn't percolated to the general public. This seems to be a historical pattern...) It's as if people were to say "you can't see wind, either, and yet we say that wind exists." Duh. I don't know what those people are thinking when they see the trees shake and smoke drifting horizontally under the action of some mysterious force...

It's about the same with atoms these days. Naturally, it requires some technological intervention to see atoms, but I can tell you that I have seen a single atom. Yep. With nothing more than a high-quality camera lens to focus the atom's light for me. It was a barium atom, and it was blue, and small, and surrounded by darkness. Now granted, what one actually sees is the light emitted by the atom as it sits in a trap (made of electromagnetic fields), not the atom itself, but then we're into a bit of a quandary about what it means to "see" something (quantum mechanically versus classically), which is not what most metaphysical claim defenders have in mind in raising this argument. So attached is a nice image from a group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology of several trapped atoms (ionized atoms, actually) of mercury, illuminated by resonant ultraviolet light, all in a row. Their website is full of papers and descriptions of trapping ions in little groups. They can make movies of clouds of small numbers of ions in little clouds wiggling back and forth under the influence of electromagnetic fields.


There's the issue of the mediating influence of the camera to detect the ultraviolet light, but as I say, you can see other types of atoms' fluorescence with the unaided eye. I trap sodium atoms myself -- we can make clouds of hundreds to millions of atoms hanging suspended by electromagnetic fields in empty space. It could be logically possible that the clouds we see aren't atoms, but I don't see how you can make that argument with single trapped atoms or ions.

Another technology capable of resolving individual atoms is Scanning Tunneling Electron Microscopy (STEM), a subfield of Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM). I've attached an image from a group at Amherst College of individual carbon atoms in graphite.


This is just an example. You can image all kinds of different atoms (some make better pictures than others) and molecules at fantastic resolutions. This technology is less satisfying as a refutation of the argument "you can't SEE atoms either" because it requires the intervention of a larger number of pieces of technical equipment (i.e. a computer to collate the data into an image). But there it is -- you're looking at the electron distribution of individual atoms on a surface. You can "see" the shapes of the atoms and the molecular bonds.

What's more, electromagnetic fields aren't invisible, either. Nope. You can see them. Nearly everyone can. Electromagnetic fields of a particular frequency range is called _light_. Wow. I recall an amusing anecdote as a graduate student: a grad student colleague of mine was married to a very nice woman who was worried about the biological effects of extremely low frequency electromagnetic radiation (the power line, electric blanket, brain cancer issue...), particularly on her children. She had listened to a hysterical report on the radio by some yutz investigator about how every home should have an electromagnetic field detector to see what terrible danger we were all living in. She called up her husband at work asking if he had an electromagnetic field detector in the lab and he said "Well, sure, but you've already got two of them at home, dear -- try your eyes." She really got pretty angry at what she took to be a glib answer.

I admit, it's not much in the way of dispelling ignorance and combating superstitious belief, but it's one of my pet peeves in arguments because it's just so wrong. I wonder if you'd consider discussing this particular argument on your website as I seem to encounter it so often. But it's probably just a bias effect with me.(!) The point is that the things claimed to be "just theories" (atoms, gravity, electromagnetic fields, the Big Bang, quarks) in science have observable, testable consequences that anyone can see.

I continue to enjoy your website and find it very informative.
Paul Vetter 

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