Clinical evaluations indicate whether the therapy works; research on the mechanisms involved indicates how it works and can also provide important information on efficacy. Knowing that acupuncture is effective and why makes the practitioner confident in its use, and also allows the technique to be used in a more appropriate way.
The clinical evaluation may precede studies on the mechanisms, or vice versa. For acupuncture, in most instances the clinical effect has been tested first. Use of the technique may then be further expanded on the basis of the results of research on the mechanisms. For example, experimental studies of the effect of acupuncture on white blood cells led to a successful trial of the treatment of leukopenia caused by chemotherapy.
To date, modern scientific research studies have revealed the following actions of acupuncture:
• inducing analgesia
• protecting the body against infections
• regulating various physiological functions.
In reality, the first two actions can also be attributed to the regulation of physiological functions. The therapeutic effects of acupuncture are thus brought about through its regulatory actions on various systems, so that it can be regarded as a nonspecific therapy with a broad spectrum of indications, particularly helpful in functional disorders. Although it is often used as a symptomatic treatment (for pain, for instance), in many cases it actually acts on one of the pathogenic links of a disease.
Although different acupuncture points and manipulations may have an effect through different actions, the most important factor that influences the direction of action is the condition of the patient. Numerous examples reveal that the regulatory action of acupuncture is bi-directional. Acupuncture lowers the blood pressure in patients with hypertension and elevates it in patients with hypotension; increases gastric secretion in patients with hypoacidity, and decreases it in patients with hyperacidity; and normalizes intestinal motility under X-ray observation in patients with either spastic colitis or intestinal hypotonia (11). Therefore, acupuncture itself seldom makes the condition worse. In most instances, the main danger of its inappropriate application is neglecting the proper conventional treatment.
Since its therapeutic actions are achieved by mobilization of the organism’s own potential, acupuncture does not produce adverse effects, as do many drug therapies. For example, when release of hydrocortisone plays an important role in the production of a therapeutic effect, the doses of this substance released by acupuncture are small and finely regulated, thereby avoiding the side-effects of hydrocortisone chemotherapy (12). On the other hand-and for the same reason-acupuncture has limitations. Even under conditions where acupuncture is indicated, it may not work if the mobilization of the individual’s potential is not adequate for recovery.