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Acupuncture and Its Slow Acceptance in Mainstream Science Circles

Friday, September 19, 2008 by: Dave Gabriele
Tags: acupuncture, health news, Natural News

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(NewsTarget) Acupuncture is a medical procedure in which the function of bodily systems is influenced by stimulating connective and muscular tissue at specific points on the body. The practice, once thought to be something akin to folklore in the West, has gained widespread acceptance and popularity. The reasons are not hard to understand when you consider the trouble-free relief many experience from acupuncture, as well as the many faults and problems with conventional medicine, such as debilitating side effects and pharmaceutical recalls.

"Too often, it is not the quality of our work but its orthodoxy that determines how we will be regarded by our peers." -Dr. James Scott, MD (http://jnm.snmjournals.org/cgi/reprint/33/3/...)

Traditional Chinese Medicine and Conventional Medicine

It is generally understood that when you have a very severe condition or an emergency, conventional treatment is what you need. For example, if you are experiencing a heart attack or have accidentally severed a limb, you better find a way to a hospital or surgeon in a hurry. But if you have a relatively mild condition, such as headaches, then a doctor would probably just give you pain killers. Not much help in the long term. Most people understand by now that conventional medicine seeks to solve problems by masking or eliminating symptoms, which is not always the best thing for you. Even if the pain of your headache is removed by a pill, you might wonder what caused the pain, and more importantly, is the pain an indication of some other problem?

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), like many other complimentary medical practices, is holistic which means that it takes into account the entire person and not just the affected tissue. In this way, TCM seeks the cause of the problem and then attempts to correct that cause. Quite a different approach from conventional medicine, and an approach that more and more people are beginning to see the value of.

The Cult of Scientific Studies

Sometimes people put a little too much credence in scientific studies. Don't get me wrong, scientific studies are essential in making sense of the world around us, but some people put too much faith in the conclusions. And I don't use the word 'faith' lightly. When people are exploring in areas that are unknown and little understood, as is the situation in most scientific studies, one would be wise to remember the ancient Indian fable of The Blind Men and the Elephant (http://www.wordinfo.info/Blind-Men-and-Eleph...) , as even the most intelligent or skeptical of us cannot deny its wisdom (2).

Some of us are quite convinced that scientific studies give us 'truth'. To these people I say be careful. Dr. David Suzuki said it best in a 2008 release of his weekly column Science Matters, "Scientists don't always take a big-picture approach" (3), (http://www.davidsuzuki.org/about_us/Dr_David...) . Studies, experiments and trials can give us parts of truth, specific pieces of an unknown whole which are often left to subjective interpretation.

The drug Vioxx, a synthetic medication to treat arthritis pain, exploded onto the market in 1999. Approved by the FDA, the drug underwent all the usual trials and studies to 'objectively' check its safety. It was given a green light and earned Merck $2.5 billion in 2003 alone. In 2005, over five years after its green light, Vioxx was found to increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes, and was recalled. In plainer words, the scientifically proven 'safe' drug was killing people. Not so safe after all.

This is just one example of hundreds of recalled medications that were originally proven safe and effective. Are we to believe that the findings in the preliminary studies of recalled drugs were wrong or untruthful? Perhaps. The simplest explanation, however, is that under the limited scope of the trials, pieces of truth were found -- specific perspectives taken from artificially created conditions. The resulting interpretations of these 'pieces of truth' led the scientists to conclude that the drug was 'safe'. Very much like the conclusions made by the Blind Men in the famous fable. They were not completely wrong, but at the same time, they were not completely right.

Although scientific studies can give us specific truths under specific fixed conditions, they rarely (if ever) give us what we might call the 'Whole Truth.' Simply put, scientific studies can say acupuncture does this under so and so conditions or does not do this in so and so situation, but when it comes to answering a question like, "can acupuncture help me with my stomach problem?", only a TCM doctor can answer that with any real certainty and prove it to you personally.

Studies of Skin Impedance

Having established a healthy skepticism for the conclusions of any one study, it is commonly the case that when overwhelming amounts of scientific investigations point to a similar result, that result is eventually accepted as 'truth' -- at least in part.

For acupuncture, it has been overwhelmingly shown that skin impedance (the skin's resistance to electrical current) is lower on the acupoints, in other words, the points on the body that correspond to the TCM meridian system conduct electricity better than other points.

Let us review a short cross-section of some of the findings. The China Academy of TCM in Beijing conducted an experiment which appeared in a 1999 issue of the Acupuncture and Electro-Therapeutics Research journal where a specific point on the pericardium meridian was found to have consistently lower impedance than other non-acupoints (Zhang, Xu, Zhu) (4), (http://journals.elsevierhealth.com/periodica...) .

In 2005, the American Journal of Chinese Medicine published a study demonstrating higher conductivity between two acupoints than between an acupoint and a non-acupoint. The results clearly show lower impedance on the path of the traditional TCM meridians (Lee MS, Jeong SY, Lee YH, Jeong DM, Eo, Ko) (5), (http://www.worldscinet.com/cgi-bin/details.c...) .

Similar results were discovered in another 2005 study conducted at the Department of Internal Medicine at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, Israel, and published in The Israel Medical Association Journal (IMAJ). This study took an important step further by observing how the amount of impedance found at an acupoint can serve to diagnose problems with the corresponding internal organ (Zimlichman, Lahad, Aron-Maor, Kanevsky and Shoenfeld) (6), (http://www.ima.org.il/imaj/ar05oct-4.pdf) .

A 2006 study from the Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro in Mexico was published in the Complementary Therapies in Medicine journal and also found lower electrical impedance on acupoints. This study also demonstrates how common illnesses might be diagnosed by measuring the impedance factor on acupoints (Prokhorov, Prokhorova, González-Hernández, Kovalenko, Llamas, Moctezuma and Romero) (7), (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=Art...) .

In 2007, the peer-reviewed medical journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (eCAM) published a study from the Department of Biomedical Engineering, Oregon Graduate Institute, in which lower skin impedance was systematically found on acupoints (Colbert, Yun, Larsen, Edinger, Gregory and Thong) (8), (http://ecam.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/a...) .

The studies on this subject number in the hundreds and the case seems overwhelming -- flesh at the acupoints conducts electricity better than non-acupoints. But what does that mean?

Since acupuncture follows the TCM meridian system, a theory which contends that bio-electricity (electric phenomena occurring in living organisms) has a tendency to follow certain paths in the body, scientific evidence of low skin impedance (higher electrical conductivity) on the points along the meridians seems to fit with TCM theory.

The Meridians

There is a lot of controversy on the existence of the TCM meridians. At the root of the controversy is the old adage "seeing is believing." Conventional medical practices are mostly concerned with what can be detected physically, a practice that is most likely destined to change. The human body, however, is a bit more complicated than its physicalities simply because we are not machines, we are living beings. Although conventional medicine produces results, it does so by reducing humans to their constituent parts. Medical science must continue to move forward and embrace its own short comings so that it can better serve its purpose.

Many experiments have been conducted to attempt to unravel the mysteries of the meridians. One long-running French study, published as an editorial in a 1992 issue of The Journal of Nuclear Medicine (Vernejoule, Albarede, Darras) (9) shows a lot of promise in making the meridians 'visible'. In the study, the subject's limbs were injected with minute amounts of radioactive tracers so that the material could be detected within the body using computerized scintillation cameras. What was found was quite astonishing (http://jnm.snmjournals.org/cgi/reprint/33/3/...) .

When the subjects were injected in their blood or lymphatic vessels, the material was swept away quite quickly and in only one direction -- the direction of the flow of blood or lymph. Injection of the radioactive substance on non-vessel points and non-acupoints produced very little outward movement of the particles within a time-frame of a few minutes. Injection on acupuncture points showed the exact same thing as non-acupoints, but only for about 95% of the material. The remaining 5% was shown to travel either up or down the limbs along paths that closely correspond with the TCM meridian theory. The movement did not correspond with the movement or direction of the blood and lymph vessels. The material often went in opposite directions (and in some cases in both directions) of the vessels and also travelled much slower than what is expected from the movement of the vessels. The end conclusion was that there is some other mechanism at work within the body that, within the scope of this study, corresponds to TCM theory.

In 2005, similar findings were published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine when three doctors (Schlebusch, Maric-Oehler, Popp) (10) used infrared imaging to capture the results of light acupuncture stimulation on human bodies. The resulting images showed a clear connection to the traditional TCM meridian theory (http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/abs/10.1089...) .

The American Journal of Chinese Medicine published a 2007 study (Yang, Xie, Hu, Chen, Li) (11), (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17436364) where "meridian-like" structures were observed in the bodies of subjects also using infrared thermal imaging, that is, by detecting the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum within the body. A similar study, published in the same journal and year (Yang, Xie, Liu, Li, Guo) (12), (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17963315) also demonstrates the existence of meridians using red laser stimulation of acupoints and their subsequent emittance of light.

A 2008 study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (Li, Yang, Chen, Xu, Wang, Wang, Tong, Wang) (13), (http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1089...) confirms these findings using an MRI scanner. A group of doctors from the Cardiology Division of Beijing Hospital in Beijing, China, injected subjects with active tracers at acupoints and used MRI scans to record paths that closely correlate with the traditional TCM meridians.

Although there are many theories, the actual mechanism of the meridians is not fully understood. What is understood and repeatedly demonstrated is that there is some structure in the body that does not conform to any of the known structures, such as blood or lymph vessels, that closely corresponds to the traditional Chinese meridian theory.

In the End

Low skin impedance on acupoints and meridian-like structures are two basic features of an invisible elephant named acupuncture. There are many 'blind men' determined to make sense of these findings and contribute to a future where health can be maintained easily, cheaply and without excessive drugs or surgeries.

In the end, when the understanding of the ancients is finally translated into the language of modern science, and the phenomena of acupuncture is fully understood, it will still be the results of personal treatment and not scientific studies that will speak the most clearly and convincingly to us. Soon, if not already, it will not be the scientific basis of TCM that will be in question, it will be our ability to adapt to change.


1) Scott, A. James. "Anatomic Division." The Journal of Nuclear Medicine Vol. 33 No. 3 March 1992

2) Saxe, G. John, "The Blind Men and the Elephant."

3) Suzuki, David. "New science looks at big picture for the future." The David Suzuki Foundation, Science Matters. August 21, 2008.

4) Zhang W, Xu R, Zhu Z. "The influence of acupuncture on the impedance measured by four electrodes on meridians." Acupuncture and Electrotherapeutics Research. Volume 24:181-8, 1999.

5) Lee MS, Jeong SY, Lee YH, Jeong DM, Eo YG, Ko SB. "Differences in electrical conduction properties between meridians and non-meridians." The American Journal of Chinese Medicine. Volume 33, Issue 5; 723-728, 2005

6) Eyal Zimlichman MD, Amnon Lahad MD, Anabel Aron-Maor MD, Alexander Kanevsky MD and Yehuda Shoenfeld MD. "Measurement of Electrical Skin Impedance of Dermal-Visceral Zones as a Diagnostic Tool for Inner Organ Pathologies:
A Blinded Preliminary Evaluation of a New Technique." The Israel Medical Association Journal, Volume 7; 631-634, 2005

7) E.F. Prokhorov, T.E. Prokhorova, J. González-Hernández, Yu. A. Kovalenko, F. Llamas, S. Moctezuma and H. Romero "In vivo dc and ac measurements at acupuncture points in healthy and unhealthy people" Complementary Therapies in Medicine
Volume 14, Issue 1; 31-38, 2006

8) Agatha P. Colbert, Jinkook Yun, Adrian Larsen, Tracy Edinger, William L. Gregory and Tran Thong. "Skin Impedance Measurements for Acupuncture Research: Development of a Continuous Recording System." Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2007.

9) Vernejoule, Albarede, Darras. "Nuclear Medicine and Acupuncture Message Transmission" The Journal of Nuclear Medicine. Volume 33, No. 3; 1992.

10) Schlebusch KP, Maric-Oehler W, Popp FA. "Biophotonics in the infrared spectral range reveal acupuncture meridian structure of the body." The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Volume 11, Issue 1; 171-173, 2005.

11) Yang, Hong-Qin; Xie, Shu-Sen; Hu, Xiang-Long; Chen, Li; Li, Hui. "Appearance of human meridian-like structure and acupoints and its time correlation by infrared thermal imaging." The American Journal of Chinese Medicine. Volume 35, Issue 2; 231-134, 2007.

12) Yang, Hong-Qin; Xie, Shu-Sen; Liu, Song-Hao; Li, Hui; Guo, Zhou-Yi. "Differences in optical transport properties between human meridian and non-meridian" The American Journal of Chinese Medicine. Volume 35, Issue 5; 743-752, 2007.

13) Li HY, Yang JF, Chen M, Xu L, Wang WC, Wang F, Tong JB, Wang CY. "Visualized regional hypodermic migration channels of interstitial fluid in human beings: are these ancient meridians?" The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Volume 14, No. 6; 621-8, 2008.

About the author

Dave Gabriele, D.Ac, BA, is a registered acupuncturist, a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine and a health researcher helping people in and around the Greater Toronto Area. He is the founder of Life Balance Family Health Care (www.balanceyourlife.ca), an organization committed to providing people with the information and guidance they need to make positive lifestyle changes. Dave has been a teacher of Chinese martial arts since 1997, including the arts of Taiji and Qigong.

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