Category Archives: Acupuncture in Britain

Is it utterly a placebo effect?

What Do Science communicators Think about acupunture in the UK?

The people’s interest in acupuncture has fluctuated in several decades in the UK. However, the British science communicators have constantly argued that the effect of acupuncture is suspicious. What are their opinions and which factors make them to make the concrete decision.

At the present time, Simon Sigh and Ben Goldacre are the most famous science writers in the UK . They recently published their own books containing a sceptical view of acupuncture.

Firstly, Simon Sigh wrote a book, Trick or Treatment, with Edzard Ernst, the first complementary medical professor in the UK. In his book, he argued against 4 popular complementary and alternative medicines (CAM): acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic therapy, and hermal therapy.

He argued that the effect of acupuncture is suspicious because of several reasons. First of all, the mechanism how acupuncture works is unclear. He introduced the traditional Chinese medicine’s paradigm, Q’i; however, he said there is no ‘scientific’ evidence of it. Then, he mentioned the clinical trial, a modern medical method to prove the effect of medicine. These days, as acupuncture has widely trasmitted to the Western, many organisations includig WHO(the World Health Organisation) have tried to cover acupuncture within the conventional medicine. And, the clinical trial is a typical way to confirm that acupuncture can be covered in the western medicine.

Simon Sigh spent a lot of pages to explain several clinical trials about acupuncture. But he said that these trials showed no evdience of that acupuncture works for diseases. Then, he concluded that acupuncture is likely to a placebo effect rather than an effective cure.

The other author, Ben Goldacre, also showed a result of clinical trial about acupuncture in his book, Bad Science. Virtually, Ben Goldacre also insisited that it is not sure that acupuncture really works. (Although there is no independent section about acupunture in his book, he introduced it in the ‘Homeopathy’ section and the ‘Placebo effect’ section.) In his book, there is a graph to show the percentage with short-term improvement. He said, ‘a review of trials of acupuncture for back pain showed that the studies which were properly blinded showed a tiny benefit for acupuncture, which was not “statistically significant”. Meanwhile, the trials which were not blinded – the ones where the patients knew whether they were in the treatment group or not – showed a massive, statistically significant benefit for acupuncture.

Interestingly, complementary medical doctors explained the same result in the opposite way. Simon Sigh used the result of clinical trial by German scentists. According to the news article on the Peninsula Medical School website, a school of Edzard Ernst, a researcher of the group in University of Heidelberg, said: ‘Our first clinical trial suggests that acupuncture does indeed have benefits, at least in shoulder pain’. Like this, the clinical trials can not become a proper way to prove whether acupuncture works or not.

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A brief history of Acupuncture in Britain

Acupuncture is a main part of the Chinese Traditional Medicine. According to the first description of Acupuncture in China from the second century B.C., there is a vital energy or life force called Ch’i[1] in a human body, and it flows though our body via channels known as meridians. Illnesses are due to imbalances or blockages in the flow of Ch’I, and the treatment of acupuncture is to tap into the meridians at key points to rebalance or unblock the Ch’i.[2]

Of course it is hard to determine an historical date something was revealed, Acupuncture was first coined in Europe by Wilhelm ten Rhyne of the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century. In the time of Chino-series period, a transmission of acupuncture also followed a surge of popular interested in China in Britain. Interestingly, Humoral medicine was in 17th century English and Scottish medicine, depended on vital principles, and it was very similar to the Chinese vital fluid, Ch’i. But by this time, according to Bivins’s view, acupuncture had already begun to take on a western form.

In the nineteenth century, a therapeutic technique which its practitioners called acupuncture was widely disseminated in Britain. A first British acupuncturist, Churchill published a book, the Treatise on Acupuncture in 1822. In time, some European scholars began to practice acupuncture, but they intended to reinterpret it to fit in with the scientific discoveries. For example, Louis Berlioz, a famous composer, found that acupuncture benefited relieving muscular pain and nervous conditions. He suggested that the healing mechanism might be linked to the findings of Luigi Galvani, who had discovered the electric reaction in the frog’s leg.

As well as this, in Britain, the acupuncture needle was employed to produce minor bleeding by British practitioners, and the minor bleeding was related to a treatment of scurvy which had flourished but been turned out a fault.

In the twentieth century, acupuncture has risen again due to the re-opening of China to the West in 1970s. However, acupuncture has been regarded as a Chinese product rather than medical service outside of NHS boundary. Chinese traditional clinics do not show evidence based research in the orthodox medical way, but they show individually empirical treatments. This approach causes immense repulsion from the orthodox medicine. A Chinese officer in Chinese ambassador said that British people are sceptical about Chinese medicine.[3]

In terms of science literacy, a communication [transmission] of Chinese traditional medicine had deficits. A philosopher of science, John Dupre, argues that science literacy has three parts: what science is, how science works, and how science really works. However, Chinese traditional medicine had been transmitted in sole terms of what it is to Europe. Also, the orthodox medicine has mainly criticized acupuncture in terms of what it really works. There is little discourse about what it is, a paradigm of Chinese traditional medicine.


[1] Due to a Chinese letter, there are different words meaning the same thing; for example, Q’i or Ch’i.

[2] Singh, S. and Ernst, E., Trick or Treatment

[3] I met him on the 25th of March in the Royal Society.

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