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Three of the studies suggested that acupuncture can help people suffering major depression. The fourth suggested that it could help reduce anxiety during treatment for alcoholism.
"Those three studies on major depression had some interesting positive results," says Pikalov, a researcher at Kansas University Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan.
Nevertheless, strict analysis of these studies showed that their results could not be taken as proof that acupuncture really works. Part of the problem is that acupuncture is wholly based on Chinese medicine -- an art that cannot easily be translated into scientific terms.
"Acupuncture ideally requires re-evaluation of the patient's condition at every visit and change of the treatment on every visit to the practitioner," Pikalov says. "To standardize treatment is very difficult. In acupuncture, we are choosing five doctors and asking them to treat 10 patients with depression -- and we find that they will do completely different procedures. The results may be the same -- all of the patients may get better -- but the process will be very different. We can't afford that in research. We want every patient to receive very similar treatment."
Despite this essential problem, Pikalov believes the scientific study of acupuncture is both possible and necessary. "When you look into ... how acupuncture works, there is more and more data showing that the mechanisms involve [chemical signals] in the brain," he says. "This actually makes me excited and hopeful. ... There is a possible connection which I think we can show over time."