Tuesday, May 26, 2009

One of my new pals, deep into pharma research, stunned me! He sided with a not-so-fad medical procedure: acupuncture. That palliative procedure resting on the idea that a life force (called qi or chi) flows through several meridians in the body. Any disruption to this flow causes illness. Sounds much like the ancient humors: four in number (blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy). These humors have their respective functions and any imbalance among them causes illness. This theory, proposed c. 400 BC, was a major step in the God-pervading Greece: locating illness in the body, rather than something outside it (like spirits) causing it.

Indian Ayurveda also has three similar humors (called doshas): vata (made of air and space); pitta (made of fire and water); kapha (made of earth and water). Excess of vata, for example, causes anxiety (a common Telugu word, vatam is used to for people who behave eccentrically). As in the Greek humoral theory, Ayurveda also strives to maintain a balance of doshas. Surplus of Pitta, for example, can cause digestive problems; so Ayurveda prescribes milder food like sweets over spices. We needn’t completely dismiss this alternative medicine (many of us still use neem for skin care and turmeric as an antiseptic); more so, as it carries a perennial advice for humanity: prevention is better than cure.

But some like Deepak Chopra blow up Aurveda as the cure for everything, in spite of no scientific tests proving that. So Deepak moves away from human physiology and medicine, and take to quantum physics (temptingly naming his practice quantum healing). By its very nature, subatomic physics sounds magnificent and confounding at the same time. In this confusion, the seduced are many.

Apparently, Chopra believes that quantum physics teaches that the physical world, including our bodies, is a creation of our own minds, and therefore we get the body (and overall health) that we choose to create for ourselves. Poor mental or physical health, stress, aging, senility, and so on, are all therefore completely preventable by our own free will—though it is unclear where nutrition fits into this—we create our universe but can’t choose the state of our doshas.

Acupuncture, much like its Indian and Greek cousins, plans to strike a balance: poking needles at vital points along the meridians, to adjust the chi’s flow, and bring back the body to health. Many studies [comprehensive ones by Ter Reit et al in peer-reviewed Clinical Epidemiology and British Journal of General Practice (both in 1990)] have tested the effectiveness of acupuncture. They tend to conclude that the Chinese practice is neither more nor less effective than a placebo. A placebo is an inert drug, which strikingly seems to reassure patients and relieve them as well. Placebos are said to allay symptoms, including pain, in as much as 30% of the population. Because a drug’s effectiveness cannot be compared with no drug at all, at least placebos can be pitched against the drugs.

Placebos’ palliative properties may be due to non-specific effects. All therapeutic approaches are equally effective (or ineffective, depending on the data being interpreted). This is due to a variety of factors known as non-specific effects. Non-specific because they occur in all therapeutic settings, rather than being specific. So it is better to receive some treatment, rather than none.

Besides, the standard clinical study procedure, double-blind randomized control studies, is hard to apply to acupuncture. Double-blind meaning neither the subjects nor the experimenter know who is receiving the intervention; randomized because all the subjects are randomly divided into different groups; and controls is that group that doesn’t receive any treatment (but mostly getting a placebo or a traditional treatment). So, in the case of acupuncture, giving placebos to controls is pretty difficult.

Now let’s consider where acupuncture is most pervasively used: in relieving pain. Most times, when the pain becomes too severe, acupuncture is resorted to. The body naturally regresses when this level of pain is reached and provides some relief – not necessarily because acupuncture was administered. But sticking needles does have beneficial effects. Where they are stuck are usually nerve endings that can stimulate the nervous system and produce endorphins, opiates that act much like prescription painkillers. Acupuncture also supposedly exploits the gate-control hypothesis: it tries to divert pain impulses and gate them from reaching the spinal cord or brain (that processes pain); and thereby avoid pain.

Pain is quite a puzzle and comes in two varieties: acute and chronic. Acute pain can be localized (meaning its location can be traced out) but the chronic version cannot. This is quite evident from most insurers not covering chronic pain. One last point about acupuncture is that pervading evidence for it is patient testimonies, obviously quite subjective.

So, in all, I trust acupuncture to the extent that it can be a mild avoidable supplement to a medical procedure (whose benefits have been scientifically proven)

No comments: