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The ever increasing research behind Chinese Medicine!

As any complementary medicine practitioner will eventually find themselves, I was recently part of a discussion relating to what research is there to support Chinese Medicine. This is a challenging area as it often pertains to whether you consider the results of scientific research or historical clinical outcomes such as case studies or a mixture of both to be considered acceptable research.

Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine are systems of healthcare that have been utilised for several thousand years, well before the standardisation of practice which began in China under Chairman Mao in the 1950s. Practitioners and patients who grow up with and know the benefits of acupuncture and herbal medicine as part of their culture, may say their own experience gives them the information they need to trust and continue relying on centuries of clinical knowledge handed down by practitioners. Many of these experiences can be identified by a quick search in any medical knowledge databases (e.g. PubMed, Medline, Embase) which will give a myriad of published case reports and clinical observations. It is important to recognise that results for one person in one case study, do not necessarily translate to results for another person. This is the beauty and complexity of Chinese Medicine. Each person is treated as an individual, where their own medical history is used alongside current symptoms to develop a diagnosis and treatment strategy specific to them. One patient’s migraine does not always equate to another patient’s headache!

Since the 1970s there has been an ever increasing availability of Chinese Medicine to the West. This has in turn led to an increasing number of tertiary education institutions offering Bachelor’s degrees in Chinese Medicine. With this comes the need to support the practice with scientific research. Scientific research is usually shown in rigorous peer-reviewed controlled trials, both randomised and non-randomised. These trials are needed to improve both the knowledge of efficacy (how well a treatment works) but also the safety. Safety includes harms that result directly from the practice itself (e.g. possible pneumothorax/punctured lung from incorrectly applied acupuncture) as well as harms that result indirectly (e.g. interaction of herbs with western medications).

It was this part of my discussion which led me to explain Chochrane Reviews. For those new to the research field, “Cochrane works collaboratively with contributors around the world to produce authoritative, relevant, and reliable evidence, in the form of Cochrane Reviews. Cochrane Reviews are systematic reviews of primary research in human health care and health policy, and are internationally recognized as the highest standard in evidence-based health care resources.” Source:

That in mind, here is a handful Cochrane reviews on the efficacy of acupuncture.

Acupuncture for preventing Migraine attacks: “The available evidence suggests that a course of acupuncture consisting of at least six treatment sessions can be a valuable option for people with migraine”

Treatments for preventing and treating low-back and pelvic pain during pregnancy: “Evidence from single studies suggests that acupuncture or craniosacral therapy improves pregnancy-related pelvic pain”

Acupuncture and dry-needling for low back pain: While this review found that acupuncture was not necessarily more effective than other conventional and alternative treatments, “for chronic low-back pain, acupuncture is more effective for pain relief and functional improvement than no treatment or sham treatment immediately after treatment and in the short-term only. The data suggest that acupuncture and dry-needling may be useful adjuncts to other therapies.

Acupuncture for tension-type headache: “The available evidence suggests that a course of acupuncture consisting of at least six treatment sessions can be a valuable option for people with frequent tension-type headache.”

This is just a handful of examples of showing where acupuncture may be useful! Remember that research is an ongoing process. New data will always come to light which may change the view of research completed in the past. Therefore, currently available research needs to be viewed as ‘best at the time of publication’. Also importantly, a lack of data supporting the efficacy of a treatment, doesn’t mean the treatment isn’t valid or doesn’t work, it just means more research is needed!

If you are interested in knowing how Chinese Medicine may help you, please get in touch today.

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