What’s the point of acupuncture? A TCM practitioner wants out


Britt’s note: In this anonymous post, an acupuncturist describes the difficult process of turning one’s back on pseudoscience and facing reality. It is an extraordinarily vulnerable position to renounce colleagues and friends in a public forum. I know this first hand. As other anonymous posters have mentioned to me, writing about their experiences is important for understanding personal biases and moving forward.

I have been going through the difficult and saddening process of leaving my field. I was not a naturopathic doctor. I went down the path of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and became a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist. While searching for encouragement online, I happened upon NaturopathicDiaries.com. I felt connected to Britt’s story of leaving a pseudo-medical field and admire her for taking a stand against the dangerous misinformation in the alternative health care industry.

Like many people who venture into alternative medicine, I recall my childhood experiences with doctors as negative. I was chronically ill and frequently taking antibiotics. I remember my family being “anti-doctor,” despite having a limited understanding of science and medicine. By adolescence, I had adopted the self-victimizing belief that doctors were simply pushing pills on me, rather than nurturing me back to health.

In hindsight, I think blaming the medical system was my way of coping with the frustration of not having absolute control over my health, which led me to visiting a doctor of TCM in my hometown. That was who I wanted to become!

How to rationalize the study of acupuncture

When I enrolled in my 4-year TCM program, I was 20 years old and brimming with optimism. I bought into the fallacy that mainstream medicine only treats symptoms and that alternative medicine treats the body as a whole and gets at the “root of the problem.” I went in genuinely believing that I would come out benefiting people using the power of traditional wisdom that had been tested for millennia. My family strongly believed in me and happily made sacrifices so I could afford the exceedingly expensive tuition.

After about two years into my program, I started to have doubts. There were so many things that seemed blatantly wrong. From the vitalist concept of qi to the curious mishmash of science classes and antiquated anatomical theories. The concepts were contradictory, and problems seemed endless. Even though I began questioning my faith, I was so deeply invested that I felt like I couldn’t back out.

For the remainder of my program, I found ways to rationalize the logical inconsistencies and focus on my future career in a positive light. I surrounded myself with peers and instructors who abated my fears. I learned Chinese, traveled to China, graduated with good grades, and eventually became licensed as a Diplomate of Oriental Medicine and Acupuncturist. I got a good job working at a local clinic, but soon thereafter my beliefs began to unravel.

I was already prolifically reading about acupuncture from sources such as The World Health Organization and Cochrane Collaboration. Initially, I was able to justify staying in practice by only treating patients with pain. After I became employed, however, this restriction became impossible. People with a wide array of serious health problems would arrive at my clinic. Some of them were desperate and willing to try anything to relieve their suffering, perhaps even cure their ailments. There were times when patients would seem to improve and would praise me for being such a great practitioner. With more experience, however, I realized that the truly sick and disabled would eventually end up as miserable and ill as they were when they had first met me.

Though my acupuncture practice was thriving, I was overwhelmed with guilt and depression. I struggled with the real possibility that I wasn’t helping people. The ethical debacle set in. Was I misleading my patients?

Enter ScienceBasedMedicine.org

I began reading articles from science-based and skeptical organizations. I contrasted information discovered from these sources against the rebuttals of acupuncturists defending their practices.

In the end, it was reading ScienceBasedMedicine.org that ultimately inspired me to quit. It became clear that science and sound logic beat out the vitalistic notions that underlie Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Like many in alternative medicine fields, I was mislead by well-meaning people who do not realize that the foundations of their practices are inconsistent with well-established scientific understandings of health, disease, and nature. We used acupuncture textbooks, for example, that confidently explain that examining the tongue is scientifically proven (whatever that means) to accurately diagnose health problems in other parts of the human body. I remember faithful professors talking about how scientific research was coming out to support acupuncture “all the time” and that Chinese herbal medicine was backed by modern pharmacology. Once I had a better understanding of research, I looked up many of those claims and found the science was simply not there. The research studies that we were taught had been of such low methodological quality that they could only feed into our preexisting beliefs. In many cases, the research simply never existed in the first place.


TCM is inside an echo chamber

I sometimes still catch myself hoping to find validity for acupuncture and TCM. I think it is indeed “hope” that drives people to alternative medicine. We want to believe that when scientific knowledge falls short, there is another way to gain control of our bodies. The desire for hope is so strong, that perfectly intelligent people can blind themselves beyond basic reason.

I’d like to think that the four years and tremendous effort that went into my education amounted to something more than the ability to legally sell people false-hope. Occasionally, I see some of my former classmates struggle with aspects of the cognitive dissonance that I experienced. They always seem to find a way to muddle through it by surrounding themselves with like-minded individuals who uncritically cheapen their scientific opponents. I’ve been inside this echo chamber, and I can say with great certainty that it’s full of special pleading and magical thinking, rather than any semblance of reality.

The feeling of being wrong is dreadful, but continuing to practice a faith-based system of medicine with indifference is terribly worse. I am hopeful that more people who are wrapped up in holistic health fields will begin questioning the validity of alternative practices. Better yet, I hope these people will open their minds to the possibility that they have been deceived.

Image credit: 2) JaySome rights reserved.