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Is Acupuncture Winning?

[ REALITY IS THE BEST MEDICINE

Harriet Hall, MD, also known as “The SkepDoc,” is a retired family physician, a CSI fellow, and an editor of the Science-Based Medicine blog. Her website is www.skepdoc.info.

When I first heard of acupuncture in medical school in the late 1960s, I became convinced that it worked. I read impressive media reports from China touting it for everything from pain relief to anesthesia for open heart surgery. Our Chief of Anesthesiology, Dr. John Bonica, was also convinced it worked and was studying it. As time passed, more and more studies were published, and Dr. Bonica eventually gave up on it. So did I.

I monitored the evolving research with great interest. Originally acupuncture was claimed to work for a laundry list of things, but only two things passed the tests: pain and postoperative nausea and vomiting. Even for those, systematic reviews disagreed with each other, so in April 2011, Edzard Ernst et al. published a systematic review of systematic reviews of acupuncture for pain in the journal Pain.1 They found a mix of positive, negative, and inconclusive results. They found only four conditions for which more than one systematic review reached the same conclusion: three times they agreed that it didn’t work. The fourth time, they agreed that it did work—for pain in the neck. I was asked to write an accompanying opinion piece, which I titled “Acupuncture’s Claims Punctured: Not Effective for Pain, Not Harmless.”2 I wrote:

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