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Apologetics

Acupuncture – a Christian assessment

Andrew Fergusson is the General Secretary of Christian Medical Fellowship UK.  (CMF). He has spoken, written and broadcasted extensively about alternative medicine throughout the 1990s. These views are his own.

Most Nucleus readers will have come across acupuncture. Perhaps a consultant anaesthetist was using it occasionally in a pain clinic you sat in on, and there did not appear to be any obvious ‘spiritual’ activity going on. Perhaps you’ve seen the charts of meridians in a local ‘health’ shop, alongside all sorts of weird and wonderful New Age alternative therapies and there did not appear to be any helpful ‘medical’ aspect then. Perhaps you’ve already had acupuncture treatment yourself, and some of your Christian friends have said you thereby came under occult influence, while other Christian friends wanted the details of your therapist and wondered ‘Would acupuncture do anything for me?’

This article assesses acupuncture from both Christian and scientific medical perspectives. Whilst working as a GP in the 1980s I sat on CMF’s Medical Study Group as it investigated the whole phenomenon of alternative medicine, considering the key concepts in general and then certain therapies in particular. Acupuncture was one of those we studied in detail and my views were largely formed then.

What is acupuncture? It is a traditional form of Chinese medicine which involves stimulating the skin at strategic places, called acupuncture points, to produce therapeutic benefits. Usually this stimulation is done using fine needles which ought to be sterile and used once only, but variations on a theme include:

a. acupressure – the use of blunt pressure, without puncture, over the same points

b.laser acupuncture – use of lasers on the same points

c. electroacupuncture – using electric current

d. moxibustion – various substances are burnt on the skin at the acupuncture points.

Where did acupuncture originate? The treatment has probably been used in China since around 1600 BC but the term ‘acupuncture’ is European, the idea having been brought to Europe from Nagasaki by Willem ten Rhyne in 1683.1 During the Ching dynasty (AD 1644-1911) acupuncture fell out of favour in China but has become more widely used there since the Communist revolution and it is of course very popular now in the West.

What explanations are there for how acupuncture might work? Because of this Chinese origin the first explanation for acupuncture came out of Chinese culture and belief. They held (and many in China and elsewhere still do) that there are two opposing life forces (Yin and Yang) which circulate in special channels (meridians) throughout the body. Disease is caused by an imbalance of these forces and can be rectified by regulating the flow of energy in these meridians. This can be achieved by stimulating acupuncture points located along these meridians.

This general philosophy lives on in today’s ‘traditional Chinese medicine’ and acupuncture is a major part of this concept. Professor Edzard Ernst, head of the Department of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter, and a man who has gained widespread respect in both the orthodox and alternative communities for applying to alternative medicine the same rigorous criteria demanded in orthodox medicine, comments: ‘Neither the meridians nor the acupuncture points have ever been shown to exist in an anatomical sense, nor has the existence of Yin and Yang been demonstrated convincingly. For these and other reasons, critics tend to reject traditional acupuncture.’

However, given that there is some objective evidence of limited benefit (see below), conventional Western medical thinking has some suggestions of ‘scientific’ mechanisms that might be involved:

1. Counter-irritant action. This is an obvious if over-simplistic suggestion. Mothers worldwide know that ‘rubbing it better’ helps their child’s bruised knee, and the many rubefacients on the market work by ‘taking your mind off’ the pain underneath the area being stimulated. (It may be of course that the touch alone has some therapeutic benefit.) However, this concept would not explain how needling the knee can relieve period pains, if indeed it can. Two more recent concepts are:

2. ‘Gate theory’. In 1965 Melzack and Wall proposed a new theory for pain mechanisms, whereby only certain nerve signals could get in and out of the ‘gate’ into consciousness at any one time. On this electrophysiological model, acupuncture may exert its analgesic effect partly through the selective excitation of efferent pain inhibitory pathways. This poorly understood but probably respectable concept might allow a scientific explanation of how a needle in one area of the body could affect another part of the body.

3. Endorphins. These central nervous system chemical transmitters might provide another explanation for the analgesic effect of acupuncture as there is experimental evidence that endorphins (in the cerebrospinal fluid) and enkephalins (in the serum) are released in response to acupuncture. Naloxone, a drug which reverses the effect of exogenous opiates (which themselves work on endorphin receptors) can in most instances reverse the analgesic effects of acupuncture. This perhaps adds further weight to the suggestion that acupuncture may work through endorphins.

Whatever the explanation, today, the two schools of ‘traditional Chinese’ acupuncture and ‘Western’ acupuncture exist in our culture side by side. The former is typically practised by non-medically trained practitioners, the latter by qualified physicians. In the private sector a typical session would cost between 20 and 50 pounds, but one session is rarely enough. Most therapists would recommend six to twelve sessions, and to repeat treatments at regular intervals.

What evidence is there that acupuncture works? In the helpful general review quoted earlier, Professor Ernst summarised the results of the 200 or so controlled clinical trials of acupuncture which had sought to determine whether or not it was more effective than other treatments, including ‘sham’ acupuncture (which has usually meant sticking needles into non-acupuncture points). After a ‘systematic review’ evaluation of all the available data he has concluded that acupuncture is of proven benefit for:

a.. nausea and vomiting b.. dental pain c.. low back pain when not caused by a specific disease.

The same review approach suggests strongly that acupuncture is no more effective than sham acupuncture for:

a.. losing weight b.. stopping smoking

He lists many conditions ‘for which trial data are available, and where the evidence is neither convincingly positive nor negative. This can be because results are conflicting, or the trials are of poor quality’. These conditions are:

a.. osteoarthrosis b.. inflammatory rheumatic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis c.. stroke d.. drug addictions e.. asthma f.. neck pain g.. tinnitus

Claims are made about many other conditions but Professor Ernst refuses to rule on these in the absence of evidence. He concludes ‘the bottom line is that acupuncture seems to be more than “just a placebo” for some conditions, but it is clearly not a “cure-all” ‘.

Has acupuncture got harmful physical side-effects? The answer is ‘yes’. The most frequently reported adverse effects are bruising and pain felt during the needling, and (interestingly) fainting and drowsiness directly after an acupuncture session. [2]

The use of non-sterile needles may cause infections. One overview documents 126 cases of hepatitis[3] and three cases of HIV infection have been suggested though causality has not been established beyond reasonable doubt[4,5].  A British Medical Journal leading article [6] details one case of subacute bacterial endocarditis due to infection with Propionibacterium acnes apparently via ear acupuncture, similar infections with Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus, three cases (one fatal) of staphylococcal septicaemia, and one of bilateral psoas abscesses due to Staphylococcus aureus.

The inevitable tissue trauma can also cause complications. At least 65 cases of pneumothorax have been reported [3] as have several cases of cardiac tamponade, one fatal.  Other serious complications range from retained needles to injury of the spinal cord and peripheral nerves. [2] Probably many complications go unreported, but difficulties with quantification also mean that we do not know accurately the incidence of problems, as nobody knows how many acupuncture treatments are performed.

With sterile needles and some understanding of the underlying anatomy (!), acupuncture could and should be a relatively safe treatment, in terms of physical harms.

What about spiritual harm? All the above constitutes a pretty mainstream, orthodox, textbook outline of acupuncture, but as Christians we are also concerned about possible spiritual harm. By associating in whatever way, however remote, with a therapy perhaps permeated by non-Christian or even anti-Christian ideology, are patients not at risk of spiritual harm?

To help us think through the spiritual aspects of acupuncture I refer to a checklist I have set out elsewhere. [9] It can be applied to the assessment of any alternative therapy, and seeks overall to answer, in both Christian and medical terms, the question: ‘What is the truth here?’ I venture to suggest this is the most important question we can ask about any subject! There are six specific questions in the checklist and I will apply each in turn.

A Christian checklist

1. Do the claims made for it fit the facts? The ‘traditional Chinese medicine’ approach has seen acupuncture as a ‘cure-all’. Within that context, claims about longevity and positive enhancement of health are made, for which there is no supportive evidence. Within the ‘Western medical’ context there is limited evidence of some objective benefit so that acupuncture may have a genuinely useful role to play, for example in the nausea and vomiting associated with pregnancy or with chemotherapy, or in non-specific low back pain.

Conclusion: acupuncture sometimes has objective benefit.

2. Is there a rational scientific basis to the therapy? Some suggestions have been outlined above. We must acknowledge that our understanding is currently limited, but there do seem to be some possible rational scientific explanations for the occasional benefits of acupuncture.

Conclusion: acupuncture can be understood within a worldview we hold to be true. It is not necessary to seek ‘occult’ explanations.

3. Is it the methodology or is it the principle which is the effective element? When CMF’s Medical Study Group investigated acupuncture in the mid-1980s, we quizzed Dr Felix Mann, then Britain’s best known practitioner and the person chiefly responsible for introducing acupuncture into clinical practice in the UK. He denied holding a religious faith himself, and he put no weight on the claims of Yin-Yang theories. Dr Mann believes the ancients stumbled upon something that worked empirically, needed (as human beings always do) an explanation for this, and therefore expressed their understanding in the terms of their own cultural beliefs. He sees the methodology as having limited but definite benefit (and he was refreshingly sceptical about how close you have to get the needle to the ‘acupuncture points’) and sees no need to invoke any mystical or spiritual explanations. I found his healthy common sense convincing.

Conclusion: the methodology works, sometimes. We do not need to invoke spiritual principles.

4. What are the assumptions of the world view behind the therapy? The response to these checklist questions gets a bit monotonous when applied to acupuncture! The questions are merely diagnostic tools seeking to explore from slightly different angles the truth claims for a particular therapy. As has been emphasised above, we can accept acupuncture within a scientific Western world view which we hold to be truthful as far as it goes.

Conclusion: acupuncture can be understood without invoking non-Christian world views.

5. Does the therapy involve the occult? I should by now have made clear that the therapy itself need not involve the occult, but let me now emphasise the most important warning in this article: while the therapy might not involve the occult, the therapist might! As with most if not all alternative practices the question is not so much about the nature of the therapy, but about the nature of the therapist. Who is this person I am about to place myself under?

In all therapeutic relationships, there is a power imbalance and the patient, the client, the counsellee, is potentially submitting to a lot when they place themselves ‘under’ the therapist. I am therefore in general more concerned about the acupuncturist in question than about the acupuncture. Let me give you an example.

As General Secretary of CMF, I spoke once on the phone to a lay Christian, an ordinary person without any training or expertise in health matters. He told me how he had visited an acupuncturist in his village, and after half a dozen treatments he had indeed achieved relief of the chronic painful condition he’d first gone with. He put this down to the therapy (though I must say I wondered if the condition had got better anyway over the two month period in question!). But what he went on to say was concerning. He told me that while the acupuncturist was twiddling the needles he was always muttering something inaudible under his breath, in what sounded like an incantation. He noticed too that progressively over that two month period his own spiritual life had begun to dry up. He found it hard to pray, he lost interest in going to church, he lost some of his love for the Lord. Eventually he came to realise that perhaps he’d come under some harmful spiritual influence from the acupuncturist. Simple repentance and prayer was immediately completely effective in restoring his spiritual life.

I have heard a few other anecdotes like that. I don’t necessarily believe every element, but I take them seriously.

Conclusion: acupuncture need not involve the occult, but the acupuncturist might!

6. Has the therapy stood the test of time? This question is generally weaker in its diagnostic power, but applied to acupuncture, three and a half thousand years may suggest acupuncture has got some point!

Conclusion: probably!

Summary. There is evidence that acupuncture works for a few painful conditions and there are suggestions for a rational scientific basis such that no belief need be placed in Eastern religion. I do not believe acupuncture necessarily involves the occult at all, though as in all alternative treatments I advise great caution about the therapist. I believe that performed for a proper indication by a reliable practitioner (preferably medically qualified) acupuncture can be acceptable. I suggest traditionalists using it in other situations and for other indications should be avoided as of course should anything that might be occult.

I know from much experience of discussing acupuncture that this conclusion will be controversial for some. Finally, and as a token contribution to that bigger debate, I would add that I never advise anyone to go against their conscience. Paul’s discussion of conscience and meat offered to idols in 1 Corinthians 10: 14-33 may be relevant here. If you have any doubts or qualms at all, don’t go for acupuncture. You probably won’t miss much.

Andrew Fergusson

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Further reading

Alternative Medicine – Helpful or Harmful? (Robina Coker, Monarch/CMF, 1995) is a useful general book giving a Christian and medical critique of alternative medicine. Available from the CMF Office, price 4.99 pounds plus p&p.

References

1.. Lewith G. Acupuncture. The Practitioner 1986; 230: 1057-1063 (December)

2.. Ernst E. ‘Acupuncture – what’s the point?’ The Independent 1998; 12 (20 October)

3.. Rampes H, James R. ‘Complications of acupuncture’. Acupunct Med 1995; 13:26-33

4.. Vittecoq D, Mettetal JF, Rouzioux C, Bach JF, Bouchon JP. ‘Acute HIV infection after acupuncture treatments’. NEJM 1989;320:250-251

5.. Castro KG, Lifson AR, White CR. ‘Investigation of AIDS patients with no previous identified risk factors’. JAMA 1988;259:1338-1342

6.. Ernst E, White A. ‘Acupuncture: safety first’. BMJ 1997;314:1362 (10 May)

7.. Halvorsen TB, Anda SS, Levang OW. ‘Fatal cardiac tamponade after acupuncture through congenital sternal foramen’. Lancet 1995;345:1175

8.. Ernst E. ‘The risks of acupuncture’. Int J Risk Safety Med 1995;6:179-186

9.. Fergusson A. ‘Alternative Medicine – A Review’. JCMF 1988; April:26-29 http://www.cmf.org.uk/index.htm?nucleus/nucoct99/acupu.htm

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Comments

Received by email:

[From a ‘born again’ Christian. Name withheld]:

With reference to Acupuncture Christian assessment article.

I am a born again Christian, and prior to finding Christ the major part of my testimony was occult and new age and holistic practices. I was initiated from a very young age into occultism through ritual abuse, although thankful I did not become a rituak abuser in my own occult path, thank God. But I did go deep into it. I was initiated into many paths such as reiki and seichem master level, violet flame, order of melchizadec, yod. I was a practising psychic and medium, natural and psychic healer and a practising witch, both white and black magic.

In the last days of my occult involvement before turning to Christ through seeing how deceived I had been by ALL that path (and my dad got me on acupuncture while at school), and how it all very satanic at its core (Jesus said HE is the way, the truth and the life), but in my last days practising new age and occult I even devised a new psychic healing method that had not been used before plus was channelling new undiscovered Reiki symbols that had apparently never been known.

From what I understand of these practices from extensive and professional involvement is that these therapies are usually discovered by channelling the techniques from the so called spirit realms. I believe firmly that these meridians and acupuncture points when they were originally discovered would have been divined psychically and seen through the third eye, why else would the belief in them be so rigorous to stand for all these many centuries. They would not have simply plucked the idea from no where, no way.

There are highly occultic spiritual beings in this world. I visited Mother Meera for Darshan and Pranham, where she untangles apparently karmic knots in fine energetic lines going from top to bottom. Remember, meridians and acupuncture points are claimed to be energetic blockages and lines and channels. The energies involved are most definitely occultic.

The reason people get away with it so much is that they embrace the new age and holistic world. The devil only attacks those who are not his so why would he give devotees of alternative paths problems? Also I know people who use yoga and acupuncture and moxibustion and swear by it, yet their conditions are only temporarily eased and are progressively getting worse, which they blame on the conditions rather than seeing maybe these medicines are false. Even yoga, derived from eastern mysticism and the very hand postures or mudras are used in its original form to invoke entities and deities.

This new age garbage nearly claimed my life. Once I saw it for what it was and decided to turn to Christ it all revealed itself to be deceiving and completely satanic. He is a deceiver and will make things that are false to appear true or even helpful or good for us. All the years I used these therapies myself my addictions and my mental health and every issue I had spiralled out of control, yet I swore it was helping me. Nothing could have been further from the truth. It is only since turning to Christ and leaving all that stuff in the past that my problems and life have been resolved.

I hope this helps your research and articles. I am not a raving ‘born againer’. I have a level head now because I needed to be born again. And I cringe at the thought of how many people I deceived with my practices knowing what I know now.

Oh: Further point on acupuncture and its likely being revealed to its originator spiritually. The Chinese spiritually are generally – if spiritual -Animists and worshippers of ancestral spirits. This opens them up indeed to unclean spiritual realms which will feed false spirituality. If as you said the therapist needs to be scrutinized, much more the creator of a therapy.

Received 5 May 2014

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Discussion

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  1. My concern about this article centers around the claim that Western trained physicians are more qualified to deliver acupuncture treatments than other licensed acupuncture practitioners. What makes a qualified practitioner is the amount of training and experience s/he received in the treatment method being practiced. Physicians can often practice acupuncture after undergoing only a weekend course in acupuncture techniques. On the other hand, licensed acupuncturists must undergo thousands of hours of training about acupuncture and acupuncture theory and sit for a licensure exam before they are allowed to practice. Consumers should be aware that calling a service “medical acupuncture” does not mean it is safer or more legitimate. If you are considering acupuncture you should inquire about the practitioner’s training and experience, not whether they are an MD. I would much rather a loved one receive acupuncture from a non-medically trained practitioner who has studied acupuncture extensively than from a Western physician with a weekend course under his/her belt. The so-called “qualified physicians” are not necessarily qualified at all.

    Posted by nkvm | July 27, 2012, 6:59 am
  2. sciencebasedmedicine.orgchinaforjesus.comFor a good number of years I had a strong interest in studying acupuncture and traditional chinese medicine. In the fall of last year, I had uprooted my family and moved to a new location to attend an acupuncture college for five years and receive my certification.

    For several weeks while waiting to attend school, as classes had not commenced, I spent much time in prayer and did much research about the origins of acupuncture and the philosophy behind it.
    Coupled along with that, I also read a short book on a Chinese Christians’ experience with practising tai chi, and chi kung while living in China during the 80’s and 90’s.

    My personal study of the subjects led me to understand that acupuncture points and meridians are based on Chinese Astrology. The 12 meridians that acupuncturists refer to, are based on the Chinese Zodiac and translate as the Jing Luo (??) known in English as the ChingLo channels or simply channels or meridians.
    As with many cultures of the time from the Mediterranean to Asia, there was a common belief that the Stars and Planets exhibited an effect on the human physique. This indicated that a persons health and destiny are determined by the position of the Sun, the Moon, the 5 Planets and the apparition of comets, along with the persons time of birth. In this worldview, each body segment corresponds to one of the 12 Houses of the Chinese zodiac system di zhi (??) known in English as the Earthly Branches, and which consists of 12 two-hour (30) divisions of the Ecliptic. Along the channels of the 12 meridians are positioned 360 acupoints. There is a direct correlation between the five elements in acupuncture and the five planets visible from earth.

    This information was gathered from Ben Kavoussi’s article “Astrology with Needles”. His
    research is credited solely to him. Ben has a Masters degree in Oriental Medicine and is a licensed acupuncturist in the U.S. His article can be read at:

    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/astrology-with-needles/

    I had also stumbled across a book written by Hsiao Guang, a man who studied and practised chi kung (qigong, has mulitiple spellings) for many years, later to become a Christian. He states in his book, “I am a Christian who practiced qigong for many years. My experience with it reached to great depths and led me to comprehensive studies of its theory and practices, as well as to my acquaintance with all its related religions such as Taoism, Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, yoga and also astrology, martial arts and Chinese medicine. My experience with qigong also led me to practice to various extents of all the above religions. I have been an atheist, a theist, a devout qigong disciple, and finally a Christian. The process has been long and at one point seemed endless, but it is now past. I congratulate myself on accepting Jesus while I am still young. I also rejoice that, though life is short, I have found the meaning of life before life ends for me”.

    The name of the book is “Breaking Through the Barriers of Darkness: Recognizing the Cult of Qigong for What It Is”. The book can be read online at http://www.chinaforjesus.com/resources/qigong/index.htm

    Guang mentions in his book that he began studying qigong as a boy, being mesmerized by tales of kung fu masters having great powers, being able to perform supernatural feats using their chi. Guang and his parents suffered from health issues that were “cured” by performing qigong exercise. Studying various forms and performing them, he later discovered many ungodly demonic things happening to him and around him and that certain movements of qigong had to be performed correctly or else negative health consequences and mental disorders could ensue. He finishes his book by explaining that Christians should stay away from qigong and yoga as they are closely related, along with transcendental meditation etc. etc.
    His book and experiences are very thought provoking for the Christian.

    To sum it up, I had personally been interested in studying acupuncture and chinese medicine for a number of years, was accepted and moved to attend a reputable school, later to withdraw from the program before the semester began. This information that I had come across challenged my thinking about the truth and nature of chinese medicine, qigong, acupuncture and taoist philosophy.

    I now hold to the opinion that acupuncture and chinese medicine is truly astrology combined with “medicine”. The bible does have things to say about astrology, mediums, necromancy and consulting of those who practise these things etc. etc. I feel that as a Christian we really should take a look at acupuncture, chinese medicine and qigong for what they are and decide if it is something we should be introducing into our lives.

    In my personal experience, I had to delay my dream of becoming a TCM doctor because I felt that as a Christian I could not participate in such things, unless I knew more about them. I am still learning and trying to keep an open mind, but it seems the more I learn, the more I feel deterred from the acupuncture profession.
    Perhaps God has something better in store for my desire to be a healer.

    Posted by Eddgarr | January 21, 2012, 12:56 pm
  3. One Christian approach towards
    acupuncture.

    http://religiousscienceacupuncture.blogspot.com/

    Posted by Johnhang | November 29, 2010, 6:24 pm
  4. It is always amazing reading a “Christian” assessment of anything at all. A Christian making comments about the occult when the Christian is involved in absurd imaginary conversations with his/her man made God.Astrange type of delusional activity.
    The above article is absurdly written by someone who is unaware of the illogical fallacies of the metaphysical base of their own arguments.

    Posted by fwrcourt | May 13, 2010, 6:17 pm