I believe that acupuncture works to a certain degree on some pain. I don't believe the ancient Chinese science on the subject. I don't believe that chi circulates through meridians -- in fact, since chi has never been proven to really exist in an actual clinical trial, I am extremely skeptical about its existence. From an internal arts perspective, I believe that all skills are physical, the result of hard work and practice, not "chi cultivation."
One problem I've always had with articles and books about acupuncture is the sloppy science and anecdotal evidence used to back up theories and results. Most articles in magazines or stories on TV are done either by reporters who don't question the results, or by people who have a financial interest in making acupuncture look effective. What we've needed are double blind clinical trials that eliminate the rigging of the results.
Recent clinical trials -- conducted by people with no financial stake in the outcome of the trials -- suggest that acupuncture has some beneficial impact on pain relief. They also suggest that the science of acupuncture is wrong.
When the clinical trial included both traditional acupuncture plus FAKE acupuncture, there was virtually no difference in the amount of pain relief experienced by different groups of patients. Whether you were given real acupuncture, with needles inserted into acupuncture points, or whether you were given fake acupuncture with needles inserted into random points or toothpicks poking the skin -- both groups experienced a certain amount of relief.
For years, I've read people who fervently believe in acupuncture claim that there is a bias among Western scientists and doctors against acupuncture. Quite the contrary, there is no bias, and several clinical trials have now been conducted to test acupuncture's effectiveness. The results are typically the same -- some pain relief -- but the tests don't show enough improvement among enough patients to attribute it to more than the placebo effect, possibly the result of a patient expecting improvement.
One of the most recent trials was conducted using traditional acupuncture on one group of patients, while another group was poked with a toothpick on acupuncture points. Read a Reuters report:
Here is an important conclusion from this trial:
Conclusions Although acupuncture was found effective for chronic low back pain, tailoring needling sites to each patient and penetration of the skin appear to be unimportant in eliciting therapeutic benefits. These findings raise questions about acupuncture's purported mechanisms of action. It remains unclear whether acupuncture or our simulated method of acupuncture provide physiologically important stimulation or represent placebo or nonspecific effects.
One of the most interesting clinical trials was done at the University of Liverpool. One group of patients suffering from pain was given traditional acupuncture. Another group had acupuncture needles inserted into random spots on their bodies. Neither group knew whether they were getting real or fake acupuncture. Both groups experienced the same amount of pain relief. Here is the article: http://research-archive.liv.ac.uk/455/ NOTE -- A reader noticed that I had misread this study. In fact, he was right. There had been an earlier clinical trial at the University of Liverpool that showed no difference in results. This trial, however, shows some difference, with acupuncture on the winning side.
I'm trying to find the earlier study. In looking for it, I uncovered another clinical trial that investigated the effectiveness of acupuncture on fibromyalgia with no difference between those that received acupuncture and those that received sham acupuncture: http://www.annals.org/cgi/content/abstract/143/1/10
There is another roundup of acupuncture trials. Researchers examined results from clinical trials to see if they could determine if acupuncture was a valid treatment. They determined that it is not: http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/338/jan27_2/a3115
These studies are very important because they offer clear proof -- as close to clear proof as you can get -- that the human body responds to the insertion of needles or the prodding of toothpicks in a beneficial way that helps reduce pain to a certain degree. However, the most important point in these studies is this -- acupuncture science is very likely wrong. You obviously don't have to insert a needle in a specific spot to get the desired effect. That's why some scientists have suggested that rather than "chi," acupuncture (or fake acupuncture) triggers the release of endorphins that ease pain. Another very possible interpretation -- people expect positive results from the treatment, so they experience the placebo effect.
One interesting theory is that many centuries ago, the Chinese realized that the insertion of needles produced a beneficial response by the body. As a result, they developed complex theories of points and meridians, and rules of where the needles needed to be placed, how many needles, and even the best time of day to do it.
None of that seems to matter.
There have been several clinical trials of acupuncture. Some of the results can be found here: http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/abstract/338/jan27_2/a3115
I've studied martial arts for nearly 36 years and the internal arts and chi kung since 1987. I studied acupuncture for two years. For a while I embraced the reality of chi, until I began to see that a lot of things didn't add up, and a lot of fakery was going on. Once you begin to question and explore, it unravels and you see the man pretending to be the wizard behind the curtain.
During this time, I've also noticed that belief in chi is very similar to religious belief -- those who believe won't change their opinion no matter what type of evidence is presented to them to the contrary. But for people who prefer a more independent and objective approach, these studies provide a gold mine of research.