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While running my acupuncture practice in Oregon, I was invited to lecture at Oregon Health & Science University on Traditional Chinese Medicine. These medical students had been groomed to be natural skeptics of medical practices outside of the conventional western medical training, so they were definitely a shrewd audience. And so, I was well-prepared to back up my research with scientifically-sourced articles to support my findings, but unfortunately discovered that finding randomized controlled trials considered to be the pinnacle of contemporary scientific research with clear result outcomes was a difficult task. The biggest reason is because how does a research study "blind" a group to receive or not receive acupuncture treatment? This is just not possible.
Acupuncture research has generally been designed where a specific group of patients treated with acupuncture demonstrate far superior results to those not treated, and the treatment control group arm also generally shows benefit over no treatment.
Let's break this apart - A treatment control group is a tenuous data point to obtain in acupuncture research. Often, the control group receives either no form of treatment, or receives a different intervention: whether this is acupuncture points in specific areas of the body unrelated to the prescribed treatment plan, or a treatment consisting of fake needles that retract, rather than insert, into the skin. These intervention controls are called "sham acupuncture". Because acupuncture is such a complex medical system, the therapeutic benefit of sham acupuncture sometimes doesn't show significant reduction in benefit when compared to the acupuncture treatment itself. However, the non-treatment controls very commonly show little effect when compared to acupuncture.
Acupuncturists have often disputed that this relative benefit of both acupuncture and sham acupuncture when compared to no treatment is expected, and is not an indication that acupuncture has reduced efficacy. They argue that non-insertion techniques still stimulate acupuncture points as acupressure would, and similarly, they dispute that insertion of needles into non-prescribed points will still stimulate energetic highways in the human body (also called meridians), and allow for a therapeutic effect. While neither mechanism of benefit can be 100% proven, there is an additional possible answer -- and that is the Power of Placebo.
Placebo has historically been thought of as a confounding result that impacts research outcomes. However, more and more studies are clearly demonstrating that the placebo effect is true. The measurable effect on the function of various organ systems throughout the body should no longer be ignored by the Placebo Effect.
If our minds are perceiving a therapeutic effect that was never administered, and this results in a positive true benefit, what does this mean?
It means we are just scratching the surface in understanding our ability to heal ourselves. It means that in theory, harnessing the mind to work for us can be the most powerful cure to all illnesses. Working with a holistic healthcare practitioner who clearly understands the necessity to align the mind and body is central to a patient shifting away from a constant state of illness and instead, being transformed into wellness.
So, should patients stop receiving complementary therapies with confounding results when compared to intervention controls? I would argue absolutely not. The benefits compared to non-intervention controls are generally clear, and until humans discover the key to unlocking the parts of the mind responsible for placebo healing, these complementary therapies are relatively safe tools that provide patients with immense benefit. And furthermore, traditional medicines, such as acupuncture, energy healing, yoga therapy, meditation, and integrative functional medicine recognize the importance of nurturing the landscape of the mind along with leveraging the mind-body connection to enhance results as part of their therapeutic principles of care.
While conventional medical interventions such as surgery and pharmaceutical drugs have been found to create indisputable effects on the human body, imagine if the administering medical providers also leaned into the powerful and free medical tool located within our mind? How radical is it to imagine a medical system that holistically treats patients through the lenses of respecting and valuing that health and wellness is a complex balance between juggling the physical landscape of a person’s physiology (aka., the functions and mechanisms of each organ system in accordance to a whole living being) combined with embracing the psycho-social-spiritual arena of our mind? This in-between space is where integrative medicine shines.
When patients receive care from holistic practitioners who are not only offering alternative remedies for treatment, but also understand the impact of the mind, these patients are guaranteed to feel empowered by the knowledge that they can feel better. Just by being believed in and able to harness the power of the placebo effect, these patients can definitely feel remarkably better.
Our Advanced Health Team is Here to Support You
Jessica Kohali PA-C, LAc is an essential part of our expert team of integrative holistic healthcare practitioners at Advanced Health working closely together to best guide our patients dealing with acute and chronic healthcare needs. By combining the best in evidence-based Eastern and Western medicine, Jessica brings over 15 years of integrative medicine experience to her patients. She provides the full spectrum holistic primary care medicine for all adults through embracing her patient’s story in conjunction with their psycho-social-physiologic body to uncover the root cause of their illness.
Through Jessica’s meticulous guidance and profound experience, her patients benefit from the immense value gained from personalized precision medicine in conjunction to her extensive training and experience in acupuncture, Chinese medicine, Herbal and Energy Medicine. She focuses on creating an equal partnership with patients on how best to shift their health trajectory and prevent them from ever facing a life-threatening illness.
Learn more about Jessica's practice at www.integrativewomenshealthsf.com/To learn more about Jessica’s practice and Advanced Health, go to https://www.sfadvancedhealth.com
Chen H, Ning Z, Lam WL, et al. Types of Control in Acupuncture Clinical Trials Might Affect the Conclusion of the Trials: A Review of Acupuncture on Pain Management. Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2005290116301492. Published September 15, 2016. Accessed March 15, 2021.
DG; F. Placebo Effects: Historical and Modern Evaluation. International review of neurobiology. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30146043/. Accessed March 15, 2021.
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