The Skeptical Shopper
Traveling this week, I saw an ad that I had not run across before.
Help strengthen your Health with the latest ancient technology
The ad features a drawing of a hand, palm side facing, fingers extended, covered with dots, and each dot bearing a label. The copy reads
Őtzi, a 5,000 year old mummy found in the Alps during 1991, has spurred a whole new vigor into modern research of the Ancient Chinese medical practice of acupuncture. Recent examinations of the mummy found that Őtzi has a number of tattoos that coincide with acupuncture points that would be used to treat various ailments from which he was suffering.
The advertisement copy then goes on to explain the “science” of acupuncture as a way to control and cure chronic pain, inflammation, and body irregularities. The gadget being sold, the Aculife, is claimed to stimulate your qi where you need it most. You turn the device on, and touch it to the various qi points on your hand, and it indicates which ones may have blocked pathways. You then flip a switch and use the Aculife to stimulate that point and restore the flowpath, thereby rendering health benefits by freeing up the blockage. It claims to work by delivering a mild electrical pulse to the point. Acupuncture without the needles or penetration, that is. A sidebar advises “Be your own acupuncturist, diagnose and heal yourself and your family.” Helpful warnings state that you should not use this device if you have malignant tumors, excessive bleeding, or tuberculosis.
Őtzi is certainly a real entity. Also known as the Iceman , he was discovered on the Austrian/Italian border by a hiker. Recent announcements revealed the existence of tattoos, but theories on the markings varied from decorations, religious symbols, to, indeed, some sort of prehistoric acupuncture. But, your skeptical radar (skepdar?) should be pinging.
First, there is no evidence that Őtzi’s markings were for acupuncture. For instance, he was found with hunting implements and stored foods, but no needles. The people of his time knew how to work copper (in fact, his axe was pure copper ), as well as bone, but needles found are generally suitable for sewing hide –blunt and strong.
Second, acupuncture as it is currently known did not exist 5,000 years ago in Europe, and probably not in China. Although some accounts claim that it goes back to 2600 BC, the first detailed description appears in writings from the second century BC. According to Simon Singh, writing in Trick or Treatment (W. W. Norton & Company, 2008), acupuncture was likely first used in Europe in the mid-1800s by a Dutch physician, who coined the term. The Daogung Emperor (1782-1850) removed acupuncture from the curriculum of the Chinese medical school, feeling it was an impediment to progress. However, during the Cultural Revolution, Mao Tse-tung encouraged the revival of this practice. There were two reasons, the first being a way to increase the Chinese pride in homegrown remedies, and the second, to decrease the cost of national health care. He had promised affordable health care. If the Chinese people would first go to low-cost ‘traditional’ healers, it would deflect them from seeking more expensive, Western-style evidenced-based medicine, and this was a way to keep the masses contented for low cost (sound familiar?) His personal physician wrote in a memoir that Mao himself did not believe in the efficacy of traditional Chinese treatments (including herbs, as well), and did not use it himself. Since the placebo effect of the treatment frequently alleviated the symptoms, it was deemed effective and lowered government expenditures. The resurgent interest in Chinese therapies came about in the 1970s, after Nixon’s visit to China. (Too, the well-publicized films of patients receiving open-heart surgery while ‘awake’ were later shown to have been faked.)
Third, the drawing of the hand shows dozens of qi points. The label on each point was so small that neither I nor my seat companion, wearing reading glasses, could make out any of the words, but some tiny sketches beside some of the points showed a spine, the intestines, a heart, and other organs. Presumably these particular points are meant to correspond to the ailments associated with those organs. Depending on which acupuncturist you ask, there are 14, or 12 (or more) meridians. Some schools of acupuncture incorporate yin and yang (sometimes divided into three categories, sometimes into four). Even within the U.S. practitioners, the actual points for needling vary, for the same illness. For such an ancient and supposedly proven therapy, there seems to be a wide range of viewpoints about how many of these points exist. No amount of x-rays, MRIs, CAT scans, or other medical or technical investigative tools have ever shown what qi is, where it is, how it ‘flows’ or how the pathways becomes blocked, but practitioners and their customers are convinced.
While I don’t have to remind readers of this column that the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘evidence’, I occasionally need to remind myself that just because something is old, or Chinese, or widely accepted, doesn’t make it effective outside of the placebo.
Oh, and the ad also claims that the Aculife device is FDA-approved. The Aculife Therapist Deluxe lists for $199.95. For the price, I think a half-dozen massages will make me feel better.