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YOU ARE HERE:   Home >  Articles >  New Age >  Evaluating Acupuncture

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Caduceus Staff

Evaluating Acupuncture

By Steve Godwin

Many times when I give presentations on New Age and alternative health care, I get the same question: “I tried acupuncture one time and my headache [or neck pain or whatever] went away. If it works, why shouldn’t we use it?” This is actually a very good question. If acupuncture seems to work in some cases, on what grounds could a Christian oppose it? This is the problem we want to address: first by studying to determine if acupuncture is effective, and second by examining the problem acupuncture can present to Christians.

Does Acupuncture Work?

In order to answer this question, we must investigate whether acupuncture works—and, if it works, why it works. For this, we turn to science; if acupuncture works, it can be observed, tested, and examined. This type of investigation is currently being pursued by many researchers:

At many of the country’s leading hospitals and research institutions, conventionally trained physicians are studying herbs, acupuncture, tai chi and biofeedback as rigorously as they would a new antibiotic. The short-term goal is to identify the CAM practices with the greatest benefits and the fewest hazards, and to make them part of routine clinical practice.1

This research has revealed that acupuncture does indeed seem to be effective in certain limited applications. For example, according to O’Mathuna and Larimore (Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook), there is evidence that acupuncture can relieve nausea and vomiting after chemotherapy, as well as pain during dental treatment. These demonstrated applications of acupuncture involve primarily the relief of pain. However, there is no evidence of acupuncture’s effectiveness in treating organic illnesses such as cancer. But if acupuncture is effective in certain cases, why does it work?

Why Does Acupuncture Work?

Though many acupuncturists say their treatment balances the body’s chi energy (a Taoist concept), most scientists do not accept such mystical concepts as valid. Apart from this traditional explanation, some scientific theories for the effectiveness of acupuncture have developed:

Western medical scientists, not convinced of the existence of chi or [energy] meridians, have developed alternative theories about how acupuncture might work. One theory is that the needles release naturally occurring hormones called “endorphins” that regulate pain perception. Endorphin release reduces pain during childbirth. Athletes commonly experience the effect of endorphins when they run log distances. If acupuncture needles stimulate the release of these hormones, pain will be reduced.

Another theory is based on the observation that pain in one area of the body can be reduced when another area is irritated. Still other scientists say that acupuncture creates nothing more than a placebo effect.2

Even though researchers suggest different theories for the cause (or causes) of acupuncture’s effectiveness, they are agreed on one point: the source of acupuncture's success lies in the complexities of the human nervous system, not a mystical energy current flowing through our bodies. But if it works (at least in some cases), why should Christians be cautious about acupuncture?

Reasons for Caution: The Roots of Acupuncture

If we examine the roots of acupuncture, we find that there is indeed cause for concern. When the acupuncture practitioner claims acupuncture alters the flow of chi energy through the body, this understanding is based on a religious perspective that contradicts the truth revealed by the Bible. This religious perspective may be described as both “monism” and “pantheism,” and it is common to Taoism, Buddhism, the New Age movement, and many other religions. These groups teach that all reality is actually one (the definition of “monism”) and that this one all-encompassing reality is divine (the definition of “pantheism”). This divine oneness may be called by various titles: Universal Consciousness, Ultimate Reality, the One, the Tao, Qi, Chi, Prana, Universal Energy, and many more.

Taoism, the Chinese religion upon which traditional acupuncture is based, claims that the divine oneness (the Tao) may be divided into two opposite and equal forces: the yin (negative energy) and yang (positive energy). When the yin and yang become imbalanced, the result is illness. The goal of traditional acupuncture, as well as most other traditional Chinese medical treatments, is to correct the energy imbalance and restore the patient’s health.

Modern acupuncturists have not disavowed their art’s religious origin, but in fact many embrace it enthusiastically. states that, “Acupuncture is used to regulate or correct the flow of qi to restore health.”3 According to the Council of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicines,

Oriental medicine and traditional Chinese medicine are based upon the general principle that illness results from disharmony, such as disharmony between the internal organs or disharmony with the environment, and that health can be restored by harmonizing the internal physiology, promoting circulation in the organs and tissues of the body, and achieving balance with the environment.4

Citing the history of acupuncture found in The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, the British Acupuncture Council declares,

Acupuncture is rooted in the Daoist [Taoist] philosophy of change, growth, balance and harmony and this text outlines the principles of natural law and the movements of life—yin and yang, the Five Elements, the organ system and the meridian network along which acupuncture points are located.5

The Arizona School of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine also refers openly to The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine:

Five thousand years ago in China, a court physician answered questions from his king about the practice of medicine. Published today as The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, the dialogue between doctor and king describes a system of diagnosis and healing in which a subtle energy called Qi is perceived to circulate through the body along channels called meridians. The practitioner palpates Qi as it flows through the meridians in order to diagnose conditions of disharmony in the mind and body of the patient. Treatment proceeds by the use of diet, exercise, massage, herbal remedies and counseling, as well as by the insertion of thin metal needles at control points along meridians. All of these methods have as their purpose to regulate Qi and restore harmony among body organ networks … Oriental medicine is practiced today much as it was in the Yellow Emperor’s time, and its essential premise remains unchanged: harmony in the flow of Qi is a condition of health; as long as harmony prevails in the Qi as it flows along the meridians, disease can have no foothold.6

Acupuncture: A Christian Response

The religious basis of traditional acupuncture should cause Christians to exercise caution when considering acupuncture treatment. For one thing, mistaken beliefs about reality can impact how a medical practitioner treats a patient. Imagine for a moment an airplane pilot who believes, like Peter Pan, that happy thoughts make his airplane fly. Though this airplane pilot may be able to fly smoothly under normal conditions, happy thoughts will be of little use in the case of an engine fire or other serious emergency. Similarly, if an acupuncturist bases medical diagnoses on a faulty worldview, the patient may be hurt rather than helped. Even if the treatment may work in some cases, the acupuncturist’s false beliefs may lead him to use acupuncture in inappropriate cases where it does more harm than good. Also, if a Christian receives acupuncture treatment based on such assumptions and perceives it to be effective, that Christian could become influenced by the false religious claims underlying acupuncture. This is the worst danger presented by traditional acupuncture because of its serious spiritual implications. As O’Mathuna and Larimore warn,

Those who adhere to acupuncture’s roots in traditional Chinese medicine and religion may try to convert patients to their Eastern world view, although this is not the case with every practitioner. Others may call upon spiritual powers to assist in treatments, thus exposing people to occult influences.7

For these reasons acupuncture based on Taoist religious principles should be avoided by Christians.

But what if the acupuncture treatment is based on scientific principles? Even in these cases, one must still use caution. There is some chance of infection from the use of improperly cleaned needles and a potential for harm from a needle puncturing a blood vessel or organ. Also remember that very few problems seem to be relieved by acupuncture. Acupuncture is not a magic bullet for all that ails you. This is not to say that acupuncture should never be used. There are legitimate uses for acupuncture. However, again we agree with the caution of O’Mathuna and Larimore.

Use great caution when choosing a therapist, whether conventional or alternative. Verify that the therapist has had adequate training. Acupuncturists who are physicians may have had little training in acupuncture.8

The main point to remember is that we should use discernment when investigating any medical treatment, because any treatment based on a false worldview can be harmful not only physically but spiritually as well.


  1. “Now, ‘Integrative’ Care,” Newsweek, December 2, 2002, 48.
  2. Donal O’Mathuna, Ph.D. and Walt Larimore, M.D, Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook, Zondervan, 2001, 148.
  7. Donal O’Mathuna, Ph.D. and Walt Larimore, M.D, Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook, Zondervan, 2001, 194.
  8. Ibid.

Steve Godwin serves as Senior Research Analyst in Watchman Fellowship’s Birmingham, AL Office and continues to work as a hospital RN.  E-mail him by clicking here.

This article was excerpted from the April 2003 Update

For more information on the New Age and Postmodernism movements, please visit our web catalog; or click here to order a free information packet.