It’s well known amongst scientists, skeptics and rationalists that acupuncture as a natural alternative treatment to conventional medicine is not a good idea. Its efficacy has been disproved time and time again through scientific studies. No more than a placebo effect has ever been recorded, and this was mainly around pain-relief use of acupuncture therapy. No such evidence exists that supports the use of acupuncture for neurological disorders, immunological conditions, viral infections, etc.
Even in the face of all this, acupuncture proponents are still allowed to claim that their sham therapy works at treating and even curing medical conditions that science/evidence-based medicine hasn’t been able to after decades of research. We’re making huge advancements in the treatment of cancer and aids, but we’re a long way for developing miracle cures that will decimate those diseases from the face of the planet. It’s not an impossible task, either. Through regular vaccination we’ve rid the western world of a large variety of diseases that have the potential (and have done so in the past) to kill hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.
Recently, news reports are coming out that we’re one step closer to developing a vaccine for aids. It’s a terrible disease that has effected the lives of millions of people on the planet since around the middle of the twentieth century. Irresponsible denialism by superstitious politicians and anti-contraception religious sects have largely contributed to allowing aids to run rampant in places like Africa. For every shipment of contraceptives shipped, there’s an evangelical preacher telling the masses to throw them away on arrival.
It may come as a surprise that such superstitious belief and denialism of medical science can have a dangerous impact on the western world as well. We’re lucky to have medical infrastructure that is second-to-none, with some of the best doctors the world has to offer. Australia contributes, through its various universities, to groundbreaking medical research with the potential to develop treatments and cures that will save so many lives, not just here, but around the world. But we’re not completely safe from quackery that causes so much unnecessary suffering.
TLC Acupuncture is a natural therapy clinic based in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. They also have another clinic located in Woolloongabba, Queensland. They offer a range of therapies including acupuncture, electro acupuncture, cupping and Gua Sha, and also supply Chinese herbal medicine. They’re currently running a campaign using the slogan, “Needle-ittle acupuncture?” to promote their business.
Acupuncture itself isn’t a harmful treatment. A therapist that has been properly trained and certified will probably know the risks of placing needles in the wrong location, and will practice with caution so that no actual physical harm resulting directly from the placement of the needle will occur. No one wants a bad reputation from making silly mistakes, it hurts the bottom line. Therapists will try and make the experience enjoyable, because even if no direct medical benefits are observed by the patient, if they receive a relaxing and ‘spiritual’ experience from the therapy itself, they’re likely to come back and spend more of their hard earned cash just for that.
However, the ill-practice of acupuncture can be harmful, and the type of harm inflicted is not direct from the therapy itself. TLC’s advert explicitly states:
“Needle-ittle Acupuncture? Stop managing symptoms with medication and start healing the natural way. Acupuncture is a natural and effective, drug-free treatment”.
More than that, the “Our Values and Beliefs” page of their website says:
“Our goal is to educate the public and the Australian medical professionals on the effectiveness of acupuncture so it can be used as a first line of treatment instead of or in-conjunction with medication. Whilst pharmaceutical drugs may be very effective, the majority of them sustain conditions but not cure them or restore a person to a state of full health. This is where acupuncture once recognized as common medicine will become a more effective treatment option.”
Just because acupuncture is a ‘natural’ alternative therapy to science based medicine, does not absolve the practitioners of responsibility to the public and their patients when offering, what is supposed to be sensible, health advice. Acupuncture claims to be outside of the realms of medicine, so to advise people to not take their medication is highly irresponsible. Furthermore, the fact that these people are not medical doctors of scientists gives them no credibility to issue the public with advice regarding whether or not they should seek out science based medical treatments.
TLC is slightly more militant in their natural therapy cause than a most practitioners. They believe that for any and all ailments, diseases and conditions, an acupuncturist should be consulted first and foremost before seeing your doctor. While belief in acupuncture is a personal thing, this is a dangerous stance to take on the issue.
Lets look at the range of conditions TLC claims that their acupuncture therapies treat effectively:
Immune System Conditions
Ageing and Wrinkles
In effect, TLC are advising people that if they start suffering symptoms that may be indicative of, say, cancer that they should consult their acupuncture therapist before seeing a licensed medical doctor. Whiplash is listed on the “neurological conditions” page, which seems to mean that following a car accident, instead of going to the hospital and getting fitted with a neck brace and supplied pain suppressant drugs, they are to visit one of the TCL acupuncture clinics and receive treatment there.
This is where acupuncture becomes dangerous. TLC don’t even believe that acupuncture should be used in conjunction with conventional science based medicine, and aims to replace it all together. There is no evidence to support acupuncture as an effective cure for cancer, or that the therapy can actively repair damaged muscles or bones in the neck and/or spine from a car crash injury. Common sense should prevail here, but it obviously doesn’t.
Cancer is so devastating because the body won’t attack its own cells, removing a persons ability to self repair any damage caused. It needs to be treated accurately and effectively. The cancerous cells need to be targeted; resulting tumors removed or shrunk with active treatments like chemotherapy. The body cannot be trained to do this itself by applying needles to specific, arbitrary locations of skin and surface tissue.
TLC also have a page on “How does acupuncture work?”, citing the following:
“How acupuncture works is truly fascinating and whilst there are lots of theories it is only recently been investigated with scientific methods and new technologies such as MRI machines measuring brainwave activity during acupuncture treatments. The basis of Acupuncture is all about correcting the flow of the energy throughout the body. “
The statement about the scientific studies is misleading. While it is true that studies have been conducted into acupuncture utilizing equipment such are MRI’s, those studies have found to be either inconclusive or produced negative results. TLC’s statement doesn’t even contain the information of whether the studies proved the efficacy of acupuncture, they just state that the studies have been conducted.
They dedicate each condition, or range of conditions, a specific page on their website stating how each can be treated by the application of acupuncture therapy. The “Cancer” page says, in its entirety:,
“TLC Acupuncture Brisbane is effective for treating Cancer.”
This is either laziness or classic case of “it works because we say it does”. Belief that something works does not mean that it actually does. There needs to be some level of empirical evidence and studies showing positive results that have been peer reviewed and accepted by the scientific majority. And while the proponents of acupuncture can claim that “natural” therapies are outside the realm of scientific observation, they are not. It’s all a matter of, “Did it work, or didn’t it?”.
For example, a study that took a group of test subjects all suffering from the same condition, half receiving acupuncture and half receiving some kind of placebo would produce directly observable results of whether the acupuncture worked or not. Acupuncture could be (and has been using a similar method, producing negative results) subject to this method. To argue that acupuncture is outside of this kind of methodological testing is outside of the realm of science is actually incorrect – it would be outside the realm of perceivable reality.
What TLC are advocating is simply dangerous. To advise people to abandon science based medicine completely and adopt an unproven treatment is absurd to the highest degree. If all cancer patients in Australia suddenly stopped going to hospital and started to seek acupuncture treatments, the death rate for this awful disease would increase dramatically. Medicine saves lives, and has proved to do so for a very long time.
Australia needs some kind of regulatory oversight on clinics like TLC. It’s not something that we can ignore. The credulous are likely to fall into this vile trap, and in the end people will suffer and die needlessly which could have been prevented by simply visiting their local hospital or GP. It’s a subject Skeptical World, and myself personally, will be watching very closely from now on.
– Brad Smith, Editor