Chi and Acupuncture

Each month, I examine scientific or health-related claims that are outside of the mainstream to see how they hold up against the rigour of science. This month we are looking at…

Chi (Qi)

Chi (or qi) is the Chinese word for the universally penetrating life force of the universe. In the spiritual belief system, it permeates all things, including living beings such as ourselves. In the empirical belief system, it is garbage.

One of the main concepts involving chi is that of harmony. The balances of yin and yang, the two definitive cosmic principles of the universe, lead to good health and vitality. The most common imbalance of yin and yang occurs in the human body when chi becomes blocked along the energy conduits through which chi flows (meridians).

We see chi supporters claim the treatment of patients through practices like acupuncture and chi kung as evidence for the existence of chi. They also reference magic tricks in which extraordinary feats, like dropping a brick on a person’s foot with no physical damage, can be achieved by channeling chi into the endangered area of the body.

Carrying out controlled tests relating to chi reveal other forms of deception and trickery behind the proclamations. There have been no accepted experiments that have shown chi, or any variation of the belief, to be real. It is hidden behind the shroud of Traditional Chinese Medicine, which in itself has been under heavy scrutiny by the skeptical community.

The western world has been captivated by the idea of Chinese medicine and acupuncture yet many of its consumers are unaware of its underlying methods. Acupuncture is based on the pre-scientific idea that the life energy of chi is flowing through our bodies and when it becomes obstructed, it will cause the illnesses we are troubled with today.

Credit: flickr/Wonderlane

Credit: flickr/Wonderlane

There have been literally thousands of studies into the effectiveness of acupuncture. All credible studies have concluded acupuncture is no more effective than placebo. The psychological response to the procedure is argued by Chinese medicine proponents as evidence of acupuncture’s effectiveness and therefore the existence of chi. How is it still a component of alternative treatments if it has not been shown to exist? That is because of testimonial reports and anecdotal evidence which support chi. These off-hand reports have next to no meaning in the world of science.

A meta-study on acupuncture published in 2012, which brings together 29 randomised clinical trials on the procedure, concluded the following:

“Acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic pain and is therefore a reasonable referral option. Significant differences between true and sham acupuncture indicate that acupuncture is more than a placebo. However, these differences are relatively modest, suggesting that factors in addition to the specific effects of needling are important contributors to the therapeutic effects of acupuncture.”

Think on these points in closing:

  • Some acupuncture procedures do not require the skin to be punctured, but practitioners still claim positive results. Is this not unethical for the acupuncturist to use invasive and possibly dangerous needles?
  • Research into acupuncture has been ongoing for three decades with research consistently showing it is medically ineffective. Why is it still being studied?
  • The concept of chi was around before the scientific method helped us develop modern medicine. Is there any need to use an outdated way of treating diseases when we have developed our knowledge of the human body?

[Cover Image via Wikimedia Commons]

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