Some say fibromyalgia is a real disease, while others question the diagnosis.
Today we’re going to head down to our doctor’s office with a complaint that he hears all too often: we have pain. We’re tired. We get headaches, and our hands and feet might be numb in the morning. And along with that pain comes some stiffness. It’s like, “Doc, I just don’t feel all that great.” Don’t fret, because the doctor has heard it all before. But also don’t expect to be able to guess what your doctor is going to say. The diagnosis of fibromyalgia — nonspecific pain that doesn’t seem to have any particular source — is as controversial as just about any other subject at your doctor’s office. Some believe it’s a real physical condition, some believe it’s purely psychogenic, and some think it doesn’t exist at all. What is really known about this popular but vague diagnosis?
Everything about fibromyalgia is rife with red flags. Sham treatments for it are offered in magazine ads and on late-night television infomercials. You’ll see it advertised on billboards. Books, websites, special diets, and worthless supplements are all marketed to sufferers just as aggressively as is the condition itself — the more people can be convinced that they have it, the more products they’ll buy. Chapter and verse, fibromyalgia bears every single warning sign of a pseudoscience. But where it veers from this course and enters the realm of real science is that a growing number of medical researchers believe there is something real here, and some cases are now even proving to be treatable.
Much of the time, when we discuss the subject of whether conditions have a psychological cause or a physiological cause, we find a general trend that psychogenic conditions are best treated by psychotherapy, and physiological conditions are best treated with non-psychiatric medicine. Fibromyalgia appears to be a rare exception to this rule. Its causes have not been determined to be purely psychological, but it does seem to be best treated with psychiatric medicine, including both antidepressants and psychotherapy.
Have I confused you yet? Here’s the thing . . .
Is acupuncture really ancient Chinese medicine? Does it work? Is it safe?
This ancient Chinese medical tradition stretches back over 3,000 years, the wisdom of the ancients producing medically valid results even today. As in antiquity, slender needles are inserted at precise meridian points on the body and manipulated by a skilled practitioner. Each acupuncture point relates to a specific organ or function in the body, and the practice manipulates the body’s energy, or qi to manage pain and treat a host of conditions including allergies, asthma, headaches, sciatica, insomnia, depression, high blood pressure, fibromyalgia, constipation, and even sexual dysfunction. Acupuncture is, in short, a venerable medical miracle.
Or is it? Let’s cast a skeptical eye at one of the most popular “alternative” medical modalities in the modern world.
Exactly how ancient is acupuncture? Not nearly as ancient as you may think. The first clue is right there in the hands of the acupuncturist: Those slender, flexible, stainless steel needles. The technology to make them didn’t even exist until about 400 years ago.
There are even more historical clues. The Chinese have long kept detailed records. When we examine them we do, indeed, find references to a practice called needling, but the earliest dates to about 90 BCE. The needles from that era were large, and the practice of needling refers to bloodletting and the lancing of abscesses, a treatment nothing like today’s acupuncture. Earlier Chinese medical texts, some reaching back to the 3rd century BCE, never even mention it. There’s no evidence at all that acupuncture is anywhere near 3,000 years old.
No matter. At least acupuncture is Chinese, right? Maybe not.
Chinese scholar Paul Unschuld thinks that the practice may have started in ancient Greece, with Hippocrates of Cos, and later spread to China. A fundamental feature of acupuncture, namely the special meridian points where the needles must be placed, can be traced to the medieval Islamic and European ideas of astrology mapped onto the body. This rather obvious link led researcher Ben Kavoussi to call acupuncture “Astrology with needles” He writes:
…for most of China’s long medical history, needling, bloodletting and cautery were largely practiced by itinerant and illiterate folk-healers, and frowned upon by the learned physicians who favored the use of pharmacopoeia.
Accounts of Chinese medicine first reach Europe in the 13th century. None of them even mentioned acupuncture. Wilhelm Ten Rhijn, writing in 1680, was the first Westerner to reference acupuncture. But what he described bears little resemblance to the acupuncture of today. There was no mention of qi, which is sometimes translated as chi, or any specific points. He spoke of large gold needles that were implanted deep into the skull or womb and left in place for 30 respirations.
The first American acupuncture trials were in 1826, when it was seen as a possible method of resuscitating drowning victims. As Dr. Harriet Hall describes it, “They couldn’t get it to work and ‘gave up in disgust.’ I imagine sticking needles in soggy dead bodies was pretty disgusting.”
Even through the early part of the 20th century nobody spoke of qi or meridians. Practitioners merely inserted needles near the point of pain. In fact, qi used to refer to the vapor arising from food, and the meridians were called channels or vessels, which is part of acupuncture’s link to medieval astrology and vitalism.
So just when and where did meridians enter the picture, and qi finally become some kind of energy?