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The National Cancer Institute on Acupuncture- A travesty!

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on August 4, 2009

Via the never tiring James Randi we get our attention directed to the acupuncture section in the National Cancer Institute’s  (NCI), a division of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, section on acupuncture. You may head over to the JREF entry to get Randi’s story. My concern in this entry is along the same lines, to go over the Q&A section on acupuncture and how appallingly credulously the NCI is reporting on acupuncture, despite the complete lack of scientific evidence that it does anything that it purports to do!

If you agree with me, I invite everyone to write an e-mail to the NCI and express your indignation that the NCI is so clearly implying its acceptance of this most easily demonstrable form of woo. Here go the NCI’s Q&A about acupuncture.

1. What is acupuncture? Acupuncture applies needles, heat, pressure, and other treatments to certain places on the skin to cause a change in the physical functions of the body. The use of acupuncture is part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). TCM is a medical system that has been used for thousands of years to prevent, diagnose, and treat disease.

Acupuncture is based on the belief that qi (vital energy) flows through the body along a network of paths, called meridians. Qi is said to affect a person’s spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical condition. According to TCM, qi has two forces, yin and yang. Yin and yang are opposite forces that work together to form a whole. The forces of yin and yang depend on each other and are made from each other in an unending cycle, such as hot and cold, day and night, and health and disease. Nothing is ever all yin or all yang, both exist in all things, including people. Many of the major organs of the body are believed to be yin-yang pairs that must be in balance to be healthy. When a person’s yin and yang are not in balance, qi can become blocked. Blocked qi causes pain, illness, or other health problems. TCM uses acupuncture, diet, herbal therapy, meditation, physical exercise, and massage to restore health by unblocking qi and correcting the balance of yin and yang within the person.

According to TCM, qi can be unblocked by using acupuncture at certain places on the skin, called acupoints. Acupoints are places where the meridians come to the surface of the body. There are more than 2,000 acupoints on the human body, with specific acupoints for each condition being treated.

From the very first sentence it is clear the the NCI has no intention of providing the scientific version of the acupuncture fable, but it intends to stick with the politically correct version of disregarding the science and not coming off as, dare I say, scientific? I challenge the NCI to provide the scientific evidence that shows that acupuncture causes a change in the physical functions of the body, beyond being poked with a steel needle! In fact, I can show that using acupuncture is no different from sham acupuncture which doesn’t even penetrate the skin! Check out my Acupuncture section on my Important Studies page. Not all inclusive by any means, but quite telling.

The other two paragraphs are a concise summary of what acupuncture purports to be, but where is any mentioning of the evidence to back up such claims? Shouldn’t we expect at least a token “no scientific evidence exists to support this idea” sentence on the NCI’s website?

2. What is the history of the discovery and use of acupuncture as a complementary and alternative treatment for cancer?

The oldest medical book known, written in China 4000 years ago, describes the use of acupuncture to treat medical problems. The use of the treatment spread to other Asian countries and to other regions of the world, including to Europe by the 1700s. In the United States, acupuncture has been used for about 200 years.

Research on acupuncture began in the United States in 1976. Twenty years later, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the acupuncture needle as a medical device. Many illnesses are treated with acupuncture, but it is used mainly to control pain, including pain in cancer patients. Its primary use in cancer patients has been as an addition to conventional (standard) therapy.

Again, I challenge the folks at NCI to provide the evidence that “many illnesses are treated with acupuncture”. Which illnesses are successfully treated with it? Dare I say none? Why is the NCI not mentioning that acupuncture is virtually indistinguishable from placebo? That it is virtually the placebo effect in action? Why this deafening silence? This is a government sponsored, read our tax dollars sponsored, website that’s supposed to be one of the premiere  stops for cancer information, and this is the sort of nonsense they have up there? Disappointing, very disappointing!

3. What is the theory behind the claim that acupuncture is useful in treating cancer? Acupuncture may cause physical responses in nerves cells, the pituitary gland, and parts of the brain. These responses can cause the body to release proteins, hormones, and brain chemicals that control a number of body functions. It is proposed that, by these actions, acupuncture affects blood pressure and body temperature, boosts immune system activity, and causes the body’s natural painkillers, such as endorphins, to be released.

May do this, may do that. I call bullshit. In question 1 they went over the Qi, yin-yang version, and here they start blabbering about proteins, hormones, endorphins etc etc. And they have the audacity to use the phrase “boost the immune system” in here? How preposterous is that?

5. Have any preclinical (laboratory or animal) studies been conducted using acupuncture? Scientific studies on the use of acupuncture to treat cancer and side effects of cancer began only recently. Laboratory and animal studies suggest that acupuncture can reduce vomiting caused by chemotherapy and may help the immune system be stronger during chemotherapy.

Oh stop your weaseling will you? There is no need to refer to animal studies, or preclinical studies, there are many double-blind, randomized clinical trials,  in real humans that one can refer too. Again, I challenge the folks at NCI to provide us with the studies that show that acupuncture may “help the immune system be stronger during chemotherapy.” You wanna bet that no study the purports to show this will pass the weakest of smell tests?

6. Have any clinical trials (research studies with people) of acupuncture been conducted? Most studies of the use of acupuncture in cancer patients have been done in China. In 1997, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began evaluating the safety and effectiveness of acupuncture as a complementary and alternative therapy.

  • Studies of the effect of acupuncture on the immune system Human studies on the effect of acupuncture on the immune system of cancer patients showed that it improved immune system response.
  • In clinical studies, acupuncture reduced the amount of pain in some cancer patients. In one study, most of the patients treated with acupuncture were able to stop taking drugs for pain relief or to take smaller doses. The findings from these studies are not considered strong, however, because of weaknesses in study design and size. Studies using strict scientific methods are needed to prove how acupuncture affects pain.
  • The strongest evidence of the effect of acupuncture has come from clinical trials on the use of acupuncture to relieve nausea and vomiting. Several types of clinical trials using different acupuncture methods showed acupuncture reduced nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, surgery, and morning sickness. It appears to be more effective in preventing vomiting than in reducing nausea.
  • Clinical trials are studying the effects of acupuncture on cancer and symptoms caused by cancer treatment, including weight loss, cough, chest pain, fever, anxiety, depression, night sweats, hot flashes, dry mouth, speech problems, and fluid in the arms or legs. Studies have shown that, for many patients, treatment with acupuncture either relieves symptoms or keeps them from getting worse.

Yeah, yeah sure. Links please!  Citations please so we may look at all these great studies. The point that NCI doesn’t seem to get, or is willingy refusing to accept, is not if it “reduced pain is some patients”. The point is this: did it perform better than placebo? Better than sham acupuncture? How weakly designed were these studies?  Studies using strict scientific methods have been performed and shown it not to work better than placebo. Need I direct people to my Important Studies page again? Who is writing these answers for the NCI, Jenny McCarthy?

7. Have any side effects or risks been reported from acupuncture? There have been few complications reported. Problems are caused by using needles that are not sterile (free of germs) and from placing the needle in the wrong place, movement of the patient, or a defect in the needle. Problems include soreness and pain during treatment; feeling tired, lightheaded, or sleepy; and infections. Because chemotherapy and radiation therapy weaken the body’s immune system, a strict clean needle method must be used when acupuncture treatment is given to cancer patients. It is important to seek treatment from a qualified acupuncture practitioner who uses a new set of disposable (single-use) needles for each patient.

I guess this is fairly correct, unless you take these into account obviously. I’d say death is a pretty important side effect, no?

8. Is acupuncture approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use as a cancer treatment in the United States?

The FDA approved acupuncture needles for use by licensed practitioners in 1996. The FDA requires that sterile, nontoxic needles be used and that they be labeled for single use by qualified practitioners only.

THEY’RE NOT EVEN ANSWERING THEIR OWN QUESTION! The question was not about the needles. It was asking if the FDA has approved acupuncture for use as a cancer treatment. That about says it all. Spineless cowardice and refusal to call a cow, a cow! NCI you fail. F !

10 Responses

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  1. […] e-mail to the NCI Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on August 4, 2009 In my previous entry I railed against the NCI’s portrayal of acupuncture on their website. After blowing off some […]

  2. […] See original here: The National Cancer Institute on Acupuncture- A travesty … […]

  3. arthuryinfan said, on August 6, 2009 at 2:16 PM

    “Dear friend,

    It is very happy to find and read your blogs online, when I seach something else.

    Absolutely, you are a very serious person. If you are a scholar, I think you could give a lots contributions to scientifc field.

    I don’t know what occupation you have, but I understand you are very scientific person.

    Me too. I was the person like you.

    However, one thing changed me–the real results of acupuncture and spinal manipulation. Such therapies do help patients–they could not cure all, but help some conditions—although they look like very simple.

    As we know, people’s thinking is driving by their philosoph. So, under different educations (we even don’t aware), people may have different thoughts. We learn the science and technology in school–even more, a good school, and then feel we would know more than others. If the statement does not fit ours’ taste, we may think it might be wrong. So, when we read the explaination about acupuncture (or other) in NIH website in another “unscientific terms” or words, we might think it is bad. How to understand another one’s thought, for example, if chiropractic or acupuncture works? seeing it may be the best way.

    I don’t know how far away you live, if close to my office, you could stay here one or two days and have a look. If too far, you may call an good acupuncturist or Chiropractor and stay with them for one or two days. It may be good for us to undersatnd each other and understand “alternative medicine”.

    One thing is very important, frankly speacking—almost no one (especially everyone has been educated in scientific in current world) trust acupuncture or chiropractic if only according to our years’ scientific education, why so many patients or sub-healthy people like to see acupuncturists or chiropractors? they have too much money? —the effectiveness is the only answer.

    But, why current studies do not so support the acupuncture or chiropractic? The problems is in research methodology!!! do you ever think of –if scientific style study also has some deficits or WOO?

    If you like to know a specific food is sweet or not, you may think of testing how much surgar it has, but do you also think –is there any other stuff also sweet except surgar-when we tested that and did not find surgar in it?

    Try the taste by your own mouth, instead of experiement only.

    If using one known parameter to test your unkown stuff, you may have a wrong result–need a wholistic thinking too.

    Please temperary put down your “scientific” thought, just sit in an acupuncturist or chiropractor’s treatment room. Or you try acupuncture or chiropractic once when you have some trouble, for example low back pain. And then you may find something new that we may not know before.

    Hope this help you—I was you before, reading literature only and thinking too much may get a wrong conclusion. I was a scientific scholar in acupuncture study, so I may know a little bit more.

    Just for your information.


    Arthur Yin Fan”

    • Skepdude said, on August 6, 2009 at 3:01 PM

      Thank you, but I thinkI will reject your request to put down my scientific (no need for parentheses there) thought. Would you put down your scientific thoughts if I told you that you can indeed fly and you should “taste it by your own mouth”, so to speak, and jump of the 50th floor? I did not think so.

      We’re talking reality here, not what one wants to believe. If you are ok with being deceived, by all means put aside critical thinking, put aside science, and go with testimonials. It is your choice, but know this: There is nothing virtous about that! In fact there is a word used to describe that sort of thing. Gullibility!

  4. carriecraddockfaries said, on August 11, 2009 at 8:48 PM

    The National Institute of Health has provided large scale clinical trials on acupuncture that have shown it does work for many disorders. Please search on medline or nih websites for a ridiculous amount of scientific proof that acupuncture does work. Help me to understand why you believe there is no science behind this medicine that is a licensed modality in most states. Neurologists at Harvard with nih funding have actually watched the brain through scans and can see not just a relaxation response in the brain but also long term changes in the brain’s response to pain with repeated acupuncture treatments. Not much better science than that!
    Carrie Craddock Faries, Licensed Acupuncturist

    • Skepdude said, on August 12, 2009 at 9:07 AM


      Scroll up and click my “Important Studies” page. You will find links to 4 studies about acupuncture.

      Please provide links of the studies you are referring to. We’ll compare and see what the evidence is.

      Before you give me your studies here are the guidelines I expect from a properly designed and conduced study: at least some sort of single blinding via some type of sham acupuncture (double blinding being the gold standard which has been done with acupuncture just so you know); at least the patients must not be aware if they are getting “real” acupuncture or not, statistically significant difference between real and sham acupuncture; sample size cannot be too small (20 patients), and some sort of randomized assignement.

      Leave links in the comments.

  5. James Randi said, on September 27, 2009 at 5:26 AM

    “…that it does anything that is purports to do!” should read “it” rather than “is”…

    • Skepdude said, on September 27, 2009 at 9:11 AM

      Thank you, the correction has been made.

  6. James Randi said, on September 27, 2009 at 5:33 AM

    Perhaps I should remind all the woo-woos that though the JREF million-dollar challenge has been in place for 10 years now, and we’ve repeatedly agreed that acupuncture is eligible for that prize, we have never received an application from any of the thousands of practitioners around the world! It’s not too difficult to understand: prove that acupuncture works, and we award you the million dollars…

    I’m still waiting…

    • Skepdude said, on September 27, 2009 at 9:12 AM

      Who needs a million dollars anyway, right?

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