Is Acupuncture CAM?

Most people think of acupuncture as part of complementary/alternative medicine (CAM), and this is natural given its origins. It is associated with the mysterious East, and with ancient wisdom that is generally said to go back in time for thousands of years. Although its antiquity is not as great as is sometimes claimed, it is true that it originated centuries ago in China, where it acquired a large and complicated theoretical base which is difficult or impossible to make sense of in terms of modern anatomy and physiology. For some, this is part of its appeal.

But this is not the whole story. In practice, sticking needles into people often does relieve symptoms, especially (but not exclusively) pain. Largely for this reason, acupuncture has been taken up by a number of health professionals in the West, many of whom have reinterpreted it in terms of modern anatomy, physiology, and pathology.

People who practise in this way accept that the ancient Chinese made many correct observations but do not see the need to follow them in the theory that they erected on these observations. Modernists therefore ignore, partially or completely, the traditional apparatus of "meridians", "acupuncture points", yin and yang and so forth and use different criteria in deciding where and how to insert the needles.

It is possible to provide sophisticated and plausible explanations for how acupuncture might work in terms of modern neurophysiology. Although these explanations are certainly still tentative and may even need radical revision in the future, they do afford a basis for claiming that acupuncture is not simply hocus-pocus. It can be thought of as a technique, or set of techniques, for stimulating the nervous system and modifying the way in which it works. It should not be considered as CAM but should instead be incorporated within mainstream medicine.

This will not happen overnight but the trend is in that direction. If it continues, acupuncture will become detached from its traditional roots, which will come to be seen as of historical interest only, much in the way that alchemy can be viewed as a precursor of modern chemistry without any practical relevance today. This is the view of acupuncture which I advocate and teach to health professionals. (For further details please see my acupuncture articles page.)

For an account of how I came to think in this way, please see Come Back Science, All Is Forgiven.