01 Aug 2007 02:37 pm
I received a very interesting email from an acupuncturist a while back.
She related the usual anecdotal stories (including the one about major surgery being performed with only one needle in the ear for anesthesia) and then offered the following as the main point she wanted to get across:
“… having practiced acupuncture for 20 years … I know without a shred of doubt that acupuncture most certainly releases endorphins to relieve pain.”
All of which made for interesting reading, but unfortunately, did not even come close to changing my opinion about alternative medicine.
The reason her letter didn’t change my opinion is not because I’m just stubborn… or arrogant… or biased… or ignoring the facts… or (and this is my personal favorite) because I have “an unhealthy hatred for alternative medicine.”
No, all of those little gems are so silly… they’re not even worth addressing.
The simple fact is the reason I did not accept her argument is that it just wasn’t good enough. All she had managed to do was tell me that she’d fallen for the hook.
Every Hit Song Has to Have a Hook
It’s a well-known fact in the music industry that for a song to be popular, it has to have what we musicians refer to as “a hook.”
The hook is that memorable line from the chorus that keeps repeating over and over again in your head. It’s what makes the song instantly recognizable and tugs at your heart when you hear it on the radio.
- It’s Tammy Wynette singing, “Stand by your man…”
- It’s Paul McCartney singing, “Yesterday… ”
- It’s Roy Orbison singing, “Pretty woman…”
Clever songwriters know it’s the hook that makes you remember the song and gets you to buy the CD.
Without a hook, the song will not make a lasting impression on your mind. You will not be impressed and… you’ll not only forget it quickly… you probably won’t even like it in the first place.
How Does This Apply to Alternative Medicine?
I’ve also noticed that the really successful alternative therapies also have a hook. In this case, it’s that one thing they can point to and say, “See… it works!”
The hook is usually a memorable sensation or amazing result that just sticks in your mind and makes you think, “Hey, it did something!”
You’re not really sure what… but it definitely did something… and that something is where the deception gets a hold of you. It’s what gets you to come back and buy the song-and-dance.
If the treatment didn’t do anything, there would be no basis to support the illusion. Without the hook, the therapy would never get off the ground. It would die out before it ever got started.
Some Example Hooks
Snake oil I’m told, was quite often just grain alcohol (Moonshine) or some other form of opiate.
With chiropractic, the hook is usually that satisfying popping sound and the brief pleasant sensation, which I’ve discussed in my articles on that subject.
With acupuncture that “something” is endorphins.
Now there is very little question that science has been able to observe an increase of endorphins in patients being treated with acupuncture. How this is accomplished (whether physically or psychologically) has not been clearly established. 
It’s worthwhile to note that the same results are obtainable with electrical stimulation, heat and even just pressure. 
This does not mean that acupuncture is a legitimate medical profession. It just means it does something… and that something appears to help relieve pain for some people.
Endorphins Don’t Cure Disease
Just because acupuncture can stimulate endorphins does not mean it can cure disease, heal an injury, or bring about world peace. It just means it does something.
Endorphins are natural chemicals produced in the brain that affect how you feel.
The fact that acupuncture causes an increase in these chemicals does not throw open the doors or grant permission to make wild exaggerated claims of miracle cures.
Endorphins can’t correct an underlying physical problem. There is no evidence that they can cure any known disease or have any effect on things like germs or viral infections.
Treating everything with endorphins would be tantamount to a medical doctor treating every patient with Valium. That would not be proper medical care… that would just be plain irresponsible.
It’s what a sane person would call quackery.
The Danger of Jumping to Conclusions
The problem with virtually all of the so-called alternative medical professions is that they ignore sound scientific principles. They base their conclusions on personal observations and assumptions about what those observations mean. In scientific terms… they rely entirely on anecdotal evidence.
In my vernacular, they’ve simply fallen for the hook.
The problem with acupuncture, chiropractic and any other alternative isn’t that it doesn’t do something. The problems begin when they start to translate that “something” into miracle cures for every known disease from cancer to whooping cough to HIV.
The problems are compounded when they try to build an entire medical profession around just one trick. And the real danger begins when people get so caught up in believing the hook that they turn to it instead of effective medical intervention.
This simply delays the patient from receiving proper medical care… and in some cases… has been known to result in death.
Don’t Let the Hook Trick You into Believing Nonsense
“Hey, I feel great… everything they say must be true!”
Wrong. The one does not equal the other. Just because they’ve discovered a clever trick that seems to do something… does not mean that everything they say is true.
For example, it has been observed that acupuncturists generally tend to diagnose everyone with the same unscientific maladies. These typically include such things as energy stagnation, qi stagnation… and my personal favorite… blood stagnation. 
Now I don’t have any formal medical training (and you doctors can correct me if I’m wrong) but I believe if you had blood stagnation… you would be dead.
So be wary when these practitioners start using nice sounding but obscure concepts for which no clear medical definition really exists.
When they start talking about such things as yin and yang, harmony, balance and energy fields that only they can detect… you can sit and listen if you like… but I’m gonna be late for the door.
Learn to Spot the Hooks
Hooks can be very seductive.
There’s no question that the right hook can turn a mediocre song into a hit single.
The same can be said for the hooks in alternative medicine.
Hooks make wonderful placebos. So wonderful, in fact, that even the practitioners are fooled by the results.
1. A Different Way To Heal – Scientific American Frontiers w/ Allan Alda
2. Be Wary of Acupuncture, Qigong, and “Chinese Medicine” – Stephen Barrett, M.D.
3. Why Bogus Therapies Often Seem to Work – Barry L. Beyerstein, Ph.D.