I have been treated with acupuncture 8 or 9 times, including a 'miraculous' tennis elbow cure. One time, (for a stiff neck) it had no effect at all, once it could have played a role in recovery, but it could have been something else just as logically, and the other two times, I am sure it played a role. But I admit, I can not forcefully argue with someone who is skeptical other than to say it happened to me, and I know my body and I listen to it and I can feel what is going on in it. But that is too subjective – so forget I said it. Anyway, all of the 'cures' I experienced were 'mechanical' injuries, shoulder, neck, elbow, wrist. So my experience is pretty limited.
I taught English at Xian Medical College (now University) in 1985-86. My main class was about 30 doctors, most late 20s to mid-30s, (my age at the time). They wanted to learn English, to study in the west, and I was successful getting almost all of them to pass Tofel after one year. I had a good relationship with all of them – we were together through a lot of turmoil and stress as well as good times. We would have discussions about medicine and Chinese success and failure in science. Did you know the Chinese successfully reattached a hand on a western sailor in the early 1960s? That kind of micro-surgery, meticulous, painstaking in a Chinese way, was not done in the West back then. Anyway, in spite of that and other points discussed, some of my Chinese doctor-students had no faith in Chinese medicine or acupuncture in particular. All of them were scientists and knew that they had to study in the West to continue their work. One or two privately expressed to me that they didn't think acupuncture or any Chinese medicine was worth the time, effort and faith that Chinese people put into it. At the time I thought that those views were related to their disillusionment with China because of the recently ended Cultural Revolution, which had affected all of the students in some way or another. But of most of my students thought acupuncture and other Chinese medical techniques could be effective in some cases, when applied by the right doctor. And several had great faith in it.
I had a chronic case of 'tennis elbow' that I developed before going to China and it continued to plague me. One day when I was in front of the class teaching, one of my students noticed how I was holding my elbow crooked and close to my body as I wrote on the blackboard with the other hand. After class he asked me about it, I described it and he offered to treat it. I was very skeptical, but we went back to my apartment and he put one needle in in the soft area between my thumb and forefinger, one about 8 inches above my wrist, and one near my shoulder. He twisted the one on my hand and it felt like a funnybone 'shock' through my arm. He removed the needles and my elbow was instantly cured. It never recurred either.
The doctor who treated me for the elbow, Zhang, was the most respected Doctor in the class. His father had been a famous doctor in Shanghai before “Liberation”. His family suffered throughout the 50s and 60s, (Hundred Flowers Movement and Great Leap Forward, Four Pests Movement, etc) because he was from a relatively rich family. He told me as a young medical student he rejected Chinese traditional medicine. Undoubtedly the Maoist campaigns of the post Liberation period were a factor in this rejection and was related to his disappointment in his own country at that time.
But he re-discovered the effectiveness of acupuncture compared to western medicine when he was exiled out in the deep rural countryside during the Cultural Revolution. There, far from the cities, lacking access to basic modernity, he had no other means of pain alleviation for his patients, (except herbs he might find). So he taught himself acupuncture from a copy of a 2000-year-old text. He began slowly, teaching himself techniques from the ancient text, at first using it for simple cures, (like he would do for my elbow), but eventually, he even used it as anesthesia for open thorax surgery. He claimed he also was able to use it on livestock because he was also the local veterinarian. I can say I have never met a more humble, hard working or self-effacing man in my life. He was behind in his English proficiency when we started and was older than most, but he quickly caught up with and passed most of the class. I taught these doctors 3 days - 12 hours a week for an entire school year so I can say I got to know him. I believed what he told me.
People only have a limited time to learn what they do in life. Everything we do has an economic "opportunity cost". Opportunity cost (OC) is the time (and money) it takes for whatever you do. That OC is the price you pay for what you don't have time to do. So if a modern person is busy studying what we call medical science, then she has to pay the OC - forgo the opportunity of not learning the medical lessons of the distant past. While we have advanced in many ways, we still only have the same amount of time as our ancestors, so we are subject to that 'opportunity cost' through time.
In some ways, this OC is the most important factor in what separates us from the past.
There is no reason to think people who lived 5000 years ago were not as "smart" as we are, that their minds could not handle deep, subtle thought and analysis. They paid attention to signs, the traces of information that we would miss – because they were not distracted by our modernity. Polynesians navigated the Pacific by watching and noticing subtle changes in the waves, the wind, and the kinds of fish and of course the sun, moon, and stars as well. They could see things that no modern man can. Medicine in the great civilizations before 'science' was practiced by serious men. Moses Maimonides, the greatest Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages was a medical doctor by profession. He had no 'science', as we know it, but was renown for his medical skill around the Mediterranean. Knowing from his writing just how profound of a philosopher he was, and how dedicated he was to the truth, how could we think he thought any less deeply as a Doctor?
If a Chinese "traditional" doctor, or a medieval practitioner like Maimonides, trained and practiced to 'listen' to the body, in ways that we consider 'unscientific' was still able to produce good results – (and they did – as did Galen the Greek, known as the "Father of Medicine" because of his detailed writings from 2000 years ago) - then it is because while our doctors are struggling with all of the science of their field, such as genetics, biology.organic chemistry etc, Chinese traditional doctors spent their time watching and looking and learning the hidden messages that the body sends out. The smells, the palpitations, the contours of the organs that they could feel through the skin, etc all portend changes and disturbances in our biological functions. These ancient doctors created 2000 years of documentation, (from completely different traditions). So in one sense, it is in part what we call science because their methods are still repeatable, (if enough time is taken to study the methods.)
Is it as effective or predictable as modern medicine practiced in the west? For most cases, I don't think so, and most modern traditional doctors probably would not think so either. It would be foolish to ignore the advances of Western medicine.
But - Do I believe in acupuncture? Yes – mainly because I have never had a cure as quick or as total as what I had when Zhang healed my elbow. And my faith is such that I believe that if Zhang said he could cure me of a deeper disease with it, I would trust that he could. I think for a practitioner who dedicates himself to the art, acupuncture can be very effective. In some cases (such as my frozen shoulder of 5 years ago that the orthopedic doctor told me would take six months to heal – and was healed within three weeks by acupuncture) it is a powerful tool, in some cases better than the best techniques the West has.
Which brings me to the 'placebo' effect. What is that? A double-blind test where one set of participants takes a sugar pill and it cures them. Western doctors laugh and say it was the placebo. What does that mean?
“Oh – well – it's in their head – they wanted to believe it so it worked”.
“Oh – why?”
“Well – the body is mysterious and works in strange ways...”
Yes – it does. And I think Chinese medicine might be better in sync with those mysteries than western medicine.