Is There Anything to Acupuncture?
“JUST rubbish,” said a British nerve specialist. “Orientals are much more susceptible to hypnotism,” explained an American doctor. ‘It does not fit in with my knowledge of anatomy,’ declared a Texas medical school professor.
On the other hand, a Yale University biologist who had observed it firsthand related: “One had to be very impressed.” A Missouri medical school heart specialist who had witnessed its use stated: “I’m convinced there’s some margin of truth to it.” And a New York ear surgeon who saw it reported: “It works.” “We’d be fools not to look into it.”
Such widely differing comments, ranging from outright condemnation all the way to fervent endorsement, have been made recently to describe acupuncture, the ancient Chinese medical art. But why this sudden interest in acupuncture? Does it really work? If so, how? Is it a case of ‘mind over matter,’ perhaps even being connected with spiritism?
What Is It?
Acupuncture is the art of treating illnesses by means of very thin needles placed in the body at certain well-defined points. It is now also used to induce anesthesia. The name comes from the Latin words acus, meaning “needle,” and pungere, meaning “to puncture.”
The hair-thin needles are usually made of stainless steel, or at times even of gold. While those used in surgery can be longer, the ones used in routine treatment are about one to three inches long. The number of needles used on a patient, where they are inserted, how deep they go, at what angle, and how long they are kept in place, depend upon the nature of the illness or operation. The number of places, or points, where the needles may be inserted vary. Present-day charts show anywhere from 500 to over 800 different points.
How did acupuncture begin? Its origin is shrouded in antiquity. However, tradition has it that several thousand years ago the Chinese noticed that when some soldiers were wounded in battle by arrows, the wounds caused pain to disappear from other parts of the body. Over the centuries, with much experimenting, this way of treating illnesses grew to its present state.
Acupuncture today is most highly developed in the People’s Republic of China. However, its use there as an anesthetic is only of recent origin, dating back to about the year 1957, when it began to be developed. Because the needs of the government-enforced national health care were great, and the number of Western-trained doctors was small, the government ordered that traditional acupuncturists and herbal practitioners also be given physician status. In this way Western-oriented medicine was combined with traditional Chinese medicine. Each would learn from the other.
So doctors cooperated with acupuncturists. Indeed, the doctors unfamiliar with the practice are said to have tried the needles on themselves for a year before undertaking any application on patients. One result of so many more persons learning acupuncture was that, in addition to its normal use for various illnesses, experiments began in its use as an anesthetic.
From the beginning, the experiments applying acupuncture as an anesthesia were successful. And since 1966 about 500,000 such procedures have been performed. While the use of it as an anesthesia is still considered experimental in China, and is given only to patients who want it, acupuncture now has become the preferred method of anesthesia there. It is said that the analgesic effects last up to eight hours or more, after which needles could again be applied to ease pain.
Why the Sudden Interest?
The renewed interest in acupuncture by Westerners is directly related to other events in recent times, especially during the past year. During this time China has allowed groups of Westerners into its country. Among these were scientists and medical authorities who observed Chinese medical facilities and practices. Their experiences were highly interesting.
British doctors visited hospitals in Peking, Shanghai, Canton and Nanking. They related remarkable evidence of effective acupuncture use in major surgery, even brain surgery. In one case, the London Times reported, “it is claimed that no one could have borne the pain of this particular treatment without some form of anaesthetic.” Yet, only acupuncture was used.
The first Americans to observe the use of acupuncture in China were two biologists. In May of 1971, Dr. Ethan Signer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dr. Arthur Galston of Yale University watched four operations there. Acupuncture was the anesthetic.
They returned to the United States excited over the ability of acupuncture to deaden pain. Dr. Galston stated: “I had always associated acupuncture in my mind—as most Americans do—with a far-out, charlatan procedure.” But what he saw changed his mind. The two biologists suggested that acupuncture deserved more study, and noted that its effects as an anesthetic lasted many hours.
Soon afterward, in July, New York Times columnist James Reston aroused further interest by his own experience. During a visit to China he was stricken with appendicitis. He had to be operated on, and received a usual anesthetic, not acupuncture. But after surgery he suffered from serious gas pains, resulting in extreme discomfort. Curious about the ability of acupuncture to deal with illnesses, he agreed to be treated that way instead of taking drugs.
Reston describes what happened: “Li Chang-yuan, doctor of acupuncture at the [Peking] hospital, with my approval inserted three long, thin needles into the outer part of my right elbow and below my knees and manipulated them in order to stimulate the intestine and relieve the pressure and distension of the stomach . . . there was a noticeable relaxation of the pressure and distension within an hour and no recurrence of the problem thereafter.”
However, Signer, Galston, and Reston were not medical authorities. Hence, their observations were viewed with skepticism. But this changed in the fall of 1971.
Medical Authorities Observe
American visitors to China in September included respected medical authorities. Among them were Dr. Paul Dudley White of Boston, an internationally renowned heart specialist and former consultant to the late President Eisenhower. With White were Dr. E. Grey Dimond, provost for health sciences at the University of Missouri, and Dr. Samuel Rosen, a New York city ear surgeon. Another was Dr. Victor Sidel of New York, chief of the department of social medicine at Montefiore Hospital and professor of community health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
These four physicians witnessed extensive demonstrations of acupuncture, especially for anesthesia. They were astonished to see major operations where the only pain-killer used was acupuncture.
The Medical Tribune reported: “Dr. White and Dr. Dimond, both cardiologists, watched open heart surgery in Peking with acupuncture anesthesia. They said that the patient was awake, alert, relaxed during surgery, and that the surgery was performed as well as any they had ever seen.”
Dr. Rosen reported observing fifteen procedures. He saw a tooth extraction, tonsillectomy, appendectomy, herniotomy, a brain-tumor operation, removal of a lung, removal of an ovarian cyst, and a Cesarean birth. He said: “When you see these operations, you come out and pinch yourself. You wonder if you really saw what you saw. After you have seen it over and over, you have to give up what you thought in favor of what you saw.”
He also noted that the Chinese surgeon decides if a person is suitable for acupuncture anesthesia. If so, he tells the patient why he believes it is good—it eliminates the risks that accompany drugs or inhalant gas, it prevents postoperative nausea and vomiting, and shortens recovery time. However, if the patient is extremely nervous, tense, and high strung, he may recommend conventional anesthesia. In any case, should the conventional anesthesia be needed it is kept on hand in the operating room.
Dr. Rosen brought back to the United States a 30-minute film which recorded some of what he saw. It included surgeons removing part of a woman’s spinal cord while she was awake and smiling. It showed a man getting off the operating table after having his appendix taken out and shaking hands with the surgeon. Another patient sipped tea through a straw while surgeons corrected a heart defect. And a mother smiled proudly at her new son moments after he was born by a Cesarean operation. All used acupuncture anesthesia.
President’s China Trip
Then, in February of 1972, President Nixon traveled to China. With him were reporters and his personal medical staff.
Correspondent Robert Martin of U.S. News & World Report was invited to spend several hours in operating rooms of a major Peking hospital. He witnessed surgeons perform a lobectomy on a 28-year-old man, remove a tumor from the thyroid of a 45-year-old woman, and deliver a baby by Cesarean section to a 36-year-old woman.
Martin wrote: “Throughout the three operations, the patients were completely conscious, were able to talk, and occasionally chewed oranges or drank fruit juice. They displayed more nervousness over the presence of foreign watchers than because of pain or discomfort.” He concluded: “There is no doubt, once you have seen it yourself: Acupuncture is effective in surgical anesthesia.”
Dr. Walter Tkach, personal physician to President Nixon, was also given intense exposure to acupuncture anesthesia. He saw the removal of a cataract, the excision of a thyroid tumor, and the removal of an ovarian cyst. In all the patients, insertion of the needles was done quickly. The needles were twirled between the acupuncturist’s thumb and forefinger. And when insertion was complete, the needles were attached to an electrical device to vibrate them, instead of its being done by hand.
Dr. Tkach related this about his experience: “I was impressed from the beginning. And frankly I was astonished when each of the patients got up from the operating table with little or no help and walked unassisted to the carts that were to take them back to their rooms; I have seen nothing like that in 25 years of association with surgery. The clincher came nearly an hour after we left the OR [operating room]. We were in a room when the door opened and all three patients were ushered in. They were comfortable and able to drink tea with us and answer our questions.”
Dr. Tkach concluded: “There is something important here we should take a good look at.” He also said: “I know that I would not hesitate to receive the procedure myself.”
How Widespread Elsewhere?
While China sees the most widespread use of acupuncture, it is also used in other lands, particularly in other Oriental countries and in Europe. In France there are said to be about 700 doctors who use it. A reporter for Saturday Review wrote: “I found acupuncture to be almost a part of the dove-gray Paris air. Every day I met someone who was either going or had gone for needle therapy.”
In the United States, there are only a few American doctors who use acupuncture. Dr. William Gutman of New York, one of the few American M.D.s using it, says he finds it helpful in a variety of ailments. He names arthritis, neuralgia, sinus infections, rheumatism, bursitis and others. He said: “I get cases that do not respond to common treatment but do respond to acupuncture.” However, he cautions: “I would exclude from acupuncture treatment cancer and tuberculosis, and I would also exclude venereal disease.”
Dr. Jean-Claude Darras of Paris, acting head of a French acupuncture institute, tells his students that acupuncture is not a cure-all. He says that it cannot rejuvenate worn-out organs, although he claims it can regulate them to work more efficiently. It cannot heal lesions or remove cancerous growths, although it can help to prevent them, he states. But he says that with proper training and experience, doctors using acupuncture to treat illnesses can expect a 60-percent rate of cure with functional ailments, which is the majority of cases a physician treats in general practice.
In New York city, a Chinese acupuncture specialist, Dr. C. C. Ting, the former head of the Chinese Medical College in Hong Kong, demonstrated the art to an amazed audience of 550 at St. John’s University. Three volunteers, all laymen, were used. One was Barbara Grimaldi of the St. John’s University staff. Ting delicately inserted a needle about an inch and a half into her right shoulder. The New York Times reported: “After a couple of minutes, Dr. Ting plucked the needle from Miss Grimaldi’s shoulder. ‘It was as though I had had Novocain at the dentist’s,’ she said.” Later Ting explained that acupuncture was not a panacea for all disease, and that each case had to be evaluated carefully in the light of both Western medicine and Chinese experience.
‘Mind over Matter’?
The key question about acupuncture is this: How does it work? Is it really ‘scientific,’ or is it a case of ‘mind over matter’? Could it even be associated with spiritism?
As yet no one really knows how acupuncture works. Even its most ardent supporters admit that they do not know the precise scientific explanation.
Because of this, some have suggested that acupuncture is related to hypnosis. American orthopedist Dr. Robert Kerland compared acupuncture to drinking from the water of Lourdes, or having Oral Roberts touch people who then scream “I’m cured.” Others suggest that the Chinese have been brainwashed by Mao Tse-tung’s thoughts.
Many, however, disagree. Dr. Rosen notes that the Chinese have produced general anesthesia in animals by using acupuncture. “I do not think that cats and dogs read the quotations of Chairman Mao,” said a Chinese acupuncturist. Dr. Darras said that the French have also conducted experiments on animals to show that acupuncture success cannot be attributed to suggestion or hypnosis.
Dr. Gutman of New York, when asked about the matter, replied: “A psychological factor is involved in any medical treatment. That’s why there are clinical trials with placebos. Since acupuncture has been successfully used, particularly in China, in pediatrics [children] and in veterinary medicine [animals], . . . the psychological factor, if any, is only a small part of the effect, as in any other therapy.”
Dr. Rosen, noting the skepticism regarding acupuncture, stated: “There is a lot of skepticism about how aspirin works too, but people still take aspirin when they have a headache.” He noted that “our Chinese colleagues also had been skeptical but that they finally had to bow to the evidence of their senses.”
Medical World News says: “Research in the Soviet Union and other countries indicates that reflexes between points on the skin and internal organs are involved.” Dr. Ting told the New York Times: “We believe that the needle point desensitizes certain nerve centers and promotes a flow of health.” Other explanations involve nerve connections and electrical impulses.
In the Easton, Pennsylvania, Express Dr. Lawrence Lamb, commenting on acupuncture, said: “We are always learning new things about the body, and even new ways in which things are relayed by the nervous system. There are many feedback mechanisms from the skin itself that cause all sorts of problems. A good example is letting the skin be chilled or cooled and ending up with a stiff neck.”
More Knowledge Needed
Thus, at this point, there is no agreement on how acupuncture works, or the extent to which it does. It is agreed that much more research needs to be done on it in the Western world, especially in the United States.
Prevention magazine put it this way: “One of the reasonable demands of the public upon the medical establishment is that they investigate, carefully and in good faith, the possible uses of acupuncture. In a world full of pain and suffering, we cannot afford to ignore any promising therapy simply because the AMA [American Medical Association] does not understand it.”
Dr. Gutman says: “One requirement for everyone who wants to call himself a true scientist is open-mindedness. It should be pointed out that one of the few giants of medicine—Semmelweis, discoverer of the cause of childbed fever and father of modern antisepsis—was condemned and persecuted by the medical profession of his time.”
Hence, for most of the world outside China, acupuncture is still in an experimental stage. At this point there does not seem to be any evidence that it is based only on ‘mind over matter,’ or that it is associated with hypnotism or spiritism. But much more remains to be learned.