Recently, I had a new patient ask me a very good question: do you need to believe in acupuncture for it to work? This particular patient did, in fact, believe wholeheartedly in alternative medicine, but she still wondered if a closed mind would equal a poor treatment. The answer? No, you do not need to believe in this medicine for it to work. There is a lot of debate these days about the placebo effect, and how much this has to do with the efficacy of acupuncture. Now, the placebo effect has gotten a bad rap; in many people's eyes, placebo = fake. For those of you not familiar with the term, the placebo effect is when something works simply because you believe it will. If you have a headache, and someone hands you a white Tic Tac, claiming it is a new headache drug, the headache will disappear. Your belief has made the "pill" effective.
Like many others, I used to view this as a form of trickery. If the pill was fake, it was fake-end of story, right? But if you were that person with a migraine, and it was gone within minutes after taking that Tic Tac, wouldn't you feel differently about the situation? Placebo or no, your pain is still gone.
When it comes down to it, though, I honestly believe that the placebo effect has very little to do with the success of a treatment. I have had patients with no knowledge of acupuncture or meridians point out the movement of qi flow exactly where the meridians run. I have also had patients experience relief from things that they never considered issues in the first place, such as changes in bowel movements and periods, twitches, and tics. They had no idea that I was treating all of these things (remember, we treat the whole person, not just the problem at hand!) and still saw changes.
I have also had patients come in with huge chips on their shoulders, already convinced that this acupuncture business is all a scam. (Usually these patients were forced to come in by their significant others, and really resented that they had to be there in the first place.) You would think that these patients would do extremely poorly with this medicine, since they were dead-set on disbelief. However, I've had the same level of success with these people as I have with those who are in love with alternative medicine.
A few months ago, I treated a really cranky patient whose sole purpose seemed to be to prove that I was a charlatan. He kept asking me questions about qi, and then arguing that it didn't exist. Finally, after about 20 minutes of this, I slapped my hand down on the table.
"Look," I snapped. "Do you have back pain right now?"
"If you leave this office without any pain today, will you be happy about that?"
"So if you leave here pain-free, are you going to care whether it's because of qi, or a placebo effect, or tiny little fairies that magically erase back pain? What difference does it make? I don't really care about the exact reason that my treatment is working. All I care about is that it does. And that's all you should care about, as well."
I'm usually long on patience, but he had harassed me from the moment he set foot in my office, so he had it coming. I think he just wanted me to get tough with him, though, because he kind of laughed at my rant, and was then sweet as pie.
And he left my office free of pain.