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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How acupuncture doesn’t work

Thus far, all the carefully controlled studies of acupuncture either have not shown that it works or have shown that it doesn’t work.  Now a new study is making the rounds, putatively explaining the mechanism behind acupuncture.  The trouble is that closer examination reveals that the study actually shows a mechanism that can’t possibly be applicable to acupuncture.

A group of researchers from Hong Kong hooked up acupuncture needles to tiny motors.  Once inserted into the skin, the motors vibrated the needles at different rates, up to 50 hz (50 times per second).  At the higher frequencies, the affected cells released calcium, triggering the release of endorphins, which in turn give pain relief.  The authors suggest that it is the release of calcium that is the mechanism behind acupuncture’s ability to relieve pain. 

One problem with this scenario is that calcium was not released when the needles were vibrated below 20 hz.  Even if acupuncturists made it habit of rapidly vibrating needles, for which there is no evidence, I guarantee that they are not spinning those needles faster than 20 times/second.  Try spinning a toothpick between your fingers yourself if you don’t believe me.

So in essence, this study shows that if acupuncture works at all (which I doubt), it isn’t by vibrational release of calcium.

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