Pins and needles

As someone whose cynicism borders on belligerence—and as a regular reader of Ben Goldacre (see Bad Science in ‘Onward clicks’)—my recent visits to a Chinese medical practitioner and acupuncturist are, to say the least, a little surprising.

I am not a doctor, nor will I ever be one, and it’s because of this that I decide to put matters concerning my health into the hands of those that are. You know the type: people who’ve completed medical school, passed examinations, practised medicine, built up experience, wear a white coat and a stethoscope. Real dyed-in-the-wool ‘doctor’ types, like.

I am less inclined, then, to believe in the healing power of a magical badge, for example, or a homeopathic ‘tincture’. These things aren’t medicine, I say to myself, they’re make-believe nonsense that prey on the irredeemably bewildered. I know these things to be true, and yet …

How it came to be so

My knee was injured (note the passive voice) nearly two years ago now, when high-spirited festival antics saw my left leg involved in a Six Nations, Calcutta Cup-type incident. Unfortunately, my effete vegetarian—then vegan, in fact—frame was unable to ride the tackle, and it resulted, I much later came to discover, in a slight but not insignificant tear to my meniscus. I was told by the medical staff at the festival that it was a just a slight sprain that needed rest, so off I hobbled to recommence my (now somewhat impaired) carousing.

In the time between now and then I’ve undergone consultations, x-rays, physiotherapy and an MRI scan, and whilst the diagnosis of a torn meniscus remains constant, the rehabilitative treatment suggested has come in many, often conflicting, forms, such as:

  • ‘Exercise until it really tears, then we’ll slice you open quick as a flash.’
  • ‘Exercise? Only if you want to end up in some kind of wheelchair.’
  • ‘Listen, chap, it’s isometric exercise that’ll sort you out, and no mistake.’
  • ‘Isometric exercise? Never heard of it, sonny.’
  • ‘Oh, yeah, you can swim okay, but remember ye this: only front crawl.’
  • ‘Swim away, my boy! Let’s go together—have you brought your trunks?’

Faced with conclusions so at odds with each other made knowing how to progress pretty much impossible, so after a small amount of deliberation and a considerable amount of persuasion, I decided to give acupuncture a try.

Pointy, electrified needles

I suppose this chain of events is fairly commonplace: become disillusioned with western medical practices, try something different. After all, everyone is concerned about their health—some more than others, I admit—so if one medical approach fails, why not try another? The important thing is to feel that you’re doing something about an otherwise intractable problem … I think.

~ ~ ~

Step 1: Diagnosis
Where x-rays and MRI scans are discussed, Cantonese is spoken and a pasty and increasingly nervous white boy sits anxiously clawing at the bed, waiting for translation.

Step 2: Needles
Where needles are (only relatively) painlessly stuck into your body at various depths. An electric current is then sent through the little rascals until your leg is a jabbering all over the place.

Step 3: Cupping
Where, once the needles are withdrawn, a burning ball of flame is jabbed into a wooden cup and extinguished. The cup (now emptied of air) is then placed on your leg where, because of the vacuum, it stays.

Step 4: Herbs
Where some expensive brown herbs are placed in a paper case, put on your leg and then wrapped up in a bandage.

~ ~ ~

The acupuncturist in question has been plying his trade for 40 years now, which, when added to the 2000 or so years that the treatment has been practised in China, suggests (I like to think) that somewhere, somehow there’s an element of truth to it. Whether the so-called ‘meridian lines’ are involved is anyone’s guess, but even if it’s something as simple as a muscle reacting to having a bloody great pin stuck in it, if it works, who cares, right?

If it works

My fear, I suppose, is that it’s effectiveness might lie in that most elusive of human analgesics, the placebo effect, and that by remaining so sceptical about anything that lacks peer-reviewed proof, I’m effectively denying myself access to this relief. I mean, surely the placebo effect can only work if you refuse to admit its necessity in the first place? Otherwise we’d all be walking around in fugs of personal ecstasy 24/7 and no one would get any work done.

Of course, this thought trajectory results in a Catch 22-style paradox whereby the treatment can only be effective if I disprove the effectiveness of the treatment, so I’d much rather just carry on with the sessions for a bit and see how it goes …

Should it turn out to cure my ills then I will donate my heartfelt thanks to charity.

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