From Abracadabra to Zombies
In a nutshell: Acupuncture is a kind of energy medicine. Needles are stuck into various parts of the body to unblock energy and bring back a balance of yin-yang. There is no scientific evidence for this energy or yin-yang.
Even though millions of people believe this energy, called chi (ch'i or ki, pronounced chee), and the forces of yin-yang, flow in the human body through pathways called meridians, scientists have never found chi, yin, yang, or the meridians in which they flow.
Yin and yang are ideas found in Chinese stories written long before the rise of science. To explain yin-yang Chinese writers sometimes point to how mountains can't exist without valleys or the inside of a bowl (whose shape is concave) can't exist without the outside of the bowl (whose shape is convex).
Some people believe that to be healthy you must have a balance of yin-yang. The acupuncturist sticks the needles in special points on the skin (called acupoints). Each point is chosen by what hurts the patient. For pain in the right cheek an acupoint might be on the left big toe or on the left ear.
Where did such a weird idea come from and why do so many people believe acupuncture is a good way to treat illness or pain?
Most people think acupuncture started in China thousands of years ago, but the truth is we don't know when and where acupuncture began.
The word acupuncture isn't Chinese, but Latin (acus=needle and punctura=a pricking). The first use of the word acupuncture that joined the idea of needling with chi, meridians, and yin-yang, was by a Frenchman named George Soulié de Morant (1878-1955). Morant spent nearly twenty years in China at the beginning of 20th century. For 40 years Morant traveled around Europe telling doctors about acupuncture.
the science says no
Biology is the study of living things. There is no biological basis for acupuncture as a way to make people healthy. Still, many people around the world say acupuncture works. What they mean is that they feel better or think they feel better after getting acupuncture. Many scientific studies have shown that when patients are stuck in the wrong acupoints or aren't even stuck at all (though they think they are being stuck), they say they feel better. If a scientist has only the word of those who got either real acupuncture or fake acupuncture, she would not be able to tell who got which. About the same number in each group will say it works.
If fake acupuncture works as well as real acupuncture, then something funny is going on. Many people who get acupuncture do get better, but maybe getting better has nothing to do with unblocking energy or sticking needles in acupoints. Fake acupuncture isn't unblocking energy, but it works just as well as real acupuncture.
Some people think that acupuncture works because they feel better after getting acupuncture. Just because one thing happens after another doesn't mean the first thing brought about the second. You may get better after acupuncture, but maybe you would have gotten better anyway even if you had done nothing.
Acupuncture may seem to work because of the placebo effect. Placebo is Latin for "I shall please." A placebo is fake medicine: something that looks like a pill or a medicine but is really salt water, starch, or something that is known not to have a specific physical effect on health. "Fake" surgery and "fake" therapies like fake acupuncture are also considered placebos. Doctors have found that sometimes a placebo works just as well as real medicine.
Many scientific studies have shown that pills aren't the only things that make people feel better. Sometimes we feel better if we are treated with kindness and respect, and the doctor gives us hope that her treatment will make us better. Sometimes we feel the treatment will work if the doctor dresses "like a doctor" and the treatment room is nice and clean, and is filled with scientific looking charts and machines. Sometimes we trust the treatment because of rituals—like the loading of a needle and the rubbing of the arm before a shot is given—that seem to tell us that this is something done many times before. There must be a good reason it's been done many times.
Sometimes the placebo treatment relaxes us and puts us in a better mood. The treatment makes us less nervous about our aches and pains, which helps us heal or feel less pain. At other times we would get better even if no treatment had been given. We know this because we know that many aches and pains go away on their own. If they go away after a treatment, though, we often give credit to the treatment even if we don't know for sure that it helped.
Also, if something good happens after a treatment, we often give credit to the treatment even though it is unlikely that the treatment had anything to do with it. Some people, for example, think acupuncture helped them have a baby. How likely is that? About as likely as making it rain by dancing, I'd say. But even silly ideas sometimes turn out to be true. Scientists have done studies on acupuncture and having babies. So far it does not look like this is a very good way to go about helping anyone have a baby.
A doctor I know accidentally gave a patient a shot of salt water (saline solution) when she thought she was injecting him with a pain killer. She was preparing him for surgery, but several shots seemed to have no effect on his pain. She told the fellow that she couldn't give him any more pain killer because he'd already been given the maximum amount that was safe. He had the surgery anyway and claimed he didn't feel much pain. When he found out about her mistake, rather than being angry he felt proud that he had had his operation without any pain killer! That's the placebo effect in action.