I have developed a pat answer when people ask me, “The patient has to believe in acupuncture for it to work, right?”
I smile, because I understand why people ask this question. Acupuncture has not yet become mainstream in our culture, and the idea of using small needles to treat big issues seems a little like something you’d only read about in science fiction. So I don’t get angry, I reply, “Acupuncture is just like gravity. You don’t have to believe in it for it to work.”
Recently I read an article discussing cupping at the Olympics. There were many theories presented about how and why cupping works. One of the theories put forth stated the only reason cupping works is the placebo effect. The placebo effect is when something seems to work just because a patient believes it does. Think sugar pills treating heartburn.
I see cupping work everyday. Does it help every patient? No. Is it for every patient? No. Does it only work on the patients that believe? No. Do I need to spend my days convincing people why it works? No, I don’t. As an acupuncturist I just need to treat my patients knowing that this medicine can heal.
The mystery of the placebo effect has baffled scientist for years because it doesn’t follow the rules of scientific study, but you know humans, we’ve got to try to figure this out. The placebo effect is so effective in clinical trials that several Harvard-affiliated hospitals created the Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter (PiPS), headquartered at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
They have found that neurologically just believing that something is going to make you feel better triggers the reward centers of your brain to release dopamine, the feel good neurotransmitter in our brains. The belief makes us happier, happier patients heal faster.
I know why acupuncture works, I know why cupping works. I understand the biology of it, I understand the Chinese medical theory behind it. Some of my patients want to hear all the details, but most don’t. They just come week after week until they feel better and then they stop in for maintenance when they need it. That’s when they realize it doesn’t matter why. It just matters that they feel better.
And I’ll continue to treat the skeptics, because one my favorite things to do as an acupuncturist is to gently insert two or three needles in a skeptic’s ankle, (though they’ve come in for neck pain), and say, “Move your neck for me….now where do you feel the pain now?” The look of surprise on their face is priceless as they realize their pain in gone.