The Edmond Sun

March 15, 2013

Keeping an open mind about acupuncture

Mike Hinkle
Special to The Sun

EDMOND — What do Ignaz Semmelweis, moxibustion and acupuncture have in common? I thought you’d never ask. But before we explore the answer to this pressing question, some background is in order.

First, let’s take a look at moxibustion. This is an ancient oriental therapeutic modality in which the patient is treated with burning mugwort. Though there are several traditional moxibustion therapies, three of the “better-known” are “direct scarring,” (where a small cone of burning mugwort is applied directly to the skin and allowed to remain until the skin blisters and a scar remains after healing), “direct non-scarring,” (where the burning mugwort is removed from the skin before the burn is severe enough to scar) and “indirect moxibustion” (where a lighted mugwort cigar is positioned near the skin or attached to an inserted acupuncture needle.)

Though moxibustion, at one time, was a therapeutic rival, it now takes a backseat to the more widely used acupuncture. Though some modern scientific studies suggest forms of moxibustion may have a limited benefit in treating certain conditions, the data isn’t solid enough to justify widespread mugwort burning as a routine therapy.

Acupuncture, on the other hand, has received some notable scientific support. A 2004 study determined that acupuncture might be more effective in treating postoperative nausea and vomiting. Acupuncture also has been found to be effective in treating osteoarthritic knee pain and neck pain. Tension headaches and migraines have been successfully treated with acupuncture. Acupuncture alone, or combined with other therapies, may even have a beneficial effect on low back pain.

Last month, an article appearing in the Canadian Medical Association Journal suggested that acupuncture promoted improved facial nerve function, reduced disability and improved quality of life in patients suffering from Bell’s palsy.

Until now, the absence of scientific explanations for how acupuncture works has been an obstacle to wider acceptance. After all, it’s hard to see the connection between pins in the flesh and pain relief. Further complicating the picture is the fact that even in cases where acupuncture works, it doesn’t seem to matter that the pins are placed without proper attention to ancient Chinese methods. A rough approximation seems to be as effective as a “spot on” placement.

Now, the April edition of The Journal of Endocrinology reports researchers may be on the verge of an explanation for why acupuncture works as a treatment for chronic stress. Scientists at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) report, in stressed laboratory animals, correctly applied acupuncture techniques reduce the levels of stress hormones and peptide stress markers in the blood. According to Dr. Ladan Eshkevari, rats treated with misplaced acupuncture needles or not treated at all exhibited comparable elevated levels of these secretions. “Our growing body of evidence points to acupuncture’s protective effect against the stress response,” Dr. Eshkevari writes.

Now here’s where I confess to a bias. Even in the face of this “growing body of evidence,” I can’t help but be skeptical about acupuncture. I have a hard time seeing the connection between sticking needles in the body and bona fide treatment for disease.

This brings us to Ignaz Semmelweis. He was a 19th century Hungarian physician who suspected the high percentage of new mothers (10 percent to 35 percent) who died in hospitals from puerperal fever perished as a result of contact with doctors, midwives and nurses who didn’t wash their hands. He demonstrated, with positive statistical proof, that hospitals where medical caregivers washed their hands in chlorinated lime solution before touching these new mothers, mortality fell to below 1 percent. Since the “germ theory of disease transmission” was unknown at the time, Dr. Semmelweis couldn’t explain why handwashing worked. His colleagues were insulted and outraged. How dare he suggest that patients were dying because these gentlemen doctors had dirty hands?

Dr. Semmelweis was reviled and ridiculed throughout Europe. He died alone and disgraced in an insane asylum within 14 days of his involuntary confinement.

From our enlightened perspective, we have a great appreciation for why handwashing saves lives. Dr. Semmelweis’s contemporaries should have respected his remarkable results — replicated in numerous hospitals throughout Europe — even if they couldn’t explain the reasons why.

So what can we conclude from this? Dr. Semmelweis’s example says nothing either way about moxibustion. There simply aren’t enough scientific success stories to cause us to linger over the possible medical importance of burning mugwort. Acupuncture may be another story. I can’t help my suspicious bias against it. At this point, I won’t be looking for an acupuncturist to treat my disc problem. But there are enough success stories to convince me to keep an open mind. I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.

MIKE HINKLE is an Edmond resident and retired attorney.