The mystical circulating ‘energy’ at the heart of TCM – has any progress been made in this important area of research?

The mystical circulating ‘energy’ at the heart of TCM – has any progress been made in this important area of research?

“….the concept of circulation of energy is paramount in Chinese Medicine. The Chinese physicians have always said there’s more than just blood circulating in the body, there’s also energy, human energy of some sort circulating in the body. We don’t know how to measure that yet.”

This is a quote from a radio interview where the wonderful and mysterious world of TCM was explained to the unsuspecting Australian public – this interview took place about 16 years ago. You can find more details regarding this very interesting interview here. From the above quote, it is clear that the circulation of “energy” is paramount to TCM and that, at the time, it could not be measured nor could its existence be shown. The quote, however, ends with the word ‘yet’, indicating there is full support for the notion that this energy field do indeed exist and that it is only a matter of time before it will be detected.

Now, just imagine if someone do indeed discover this energy field with a simple experiment that can be independently reproduced by others. As soon as you can measure it, you can influence it and hence control it, which implies that you will be able to significantly improve and personalise your TCM treatment – and this will almost certainly lead to a Nobel prize in medicine and you might even become stinking rich as well. Fame and fortune up for grabs. It therefore stands to reason that TCM researchers worldwide including those at the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), the latter who are well funded and have excellent research facilities, would have had more than enough incentive and would’ve spent a significant amount of research effort to study this energy field in the 16 years since they gave the interview.

So, have they done any research on this very fundamental issue? They can vindicate TCM and for that matter most of complementary medicine if they did, never mind the major improvements in healthcare that might flow from this. The short answer is, no, they haven’t. I am not aware of any study done by any TCM researcher, or anyone at the NICM, past or present, investigating this extremely important issue. So, no progress, but also absolutely no interest in studying this extremely important aspect of TCM. But why is this?

The answer is really quite simple: As soon as you conduct a well-designed experiment you are bound to end up with a yes/no answer – or at least this is what you want. Yes, my hypothesis is correct or no, it is incorrect. Granted, you can also design an experiment that will almost always give you a positive result such as the A + B vs B clinical trial (well known to integrative medicine researchers). But for argument sake, let’s assume that they did study this aspect in a well-designed experiment and that they came up empty handed – which is quite likely because you cannot detect something if it does not exist – this will then be further evidence that the fundamental principles of TCM is absolutely rubbish. And this is of course something that they cannot publish or admit, so it is far better for the TCM researchers and the NICM to completely ignore this issue.

A second reason is that they know damn well that this energy field do not exist but they have to continue to sell this idea to the public in order to import more and more TCM modalities into Australia –  for them it is all about business (it is that $170 billion TCM market that they want to tap into). This is the most likely explanation for their failure to investigate this fundamental principle of TCM.

There is however a couple of other general issues: There is a true believe that this energy field exist because in the TCM world all modalities work – evidence for this concept is that close to a 100% of TCM clinical trials conducted in China gives a positive result. That the NICM and TCM practitioners believe this (either because they truly believe it or they make as if they believe it for the sake of their business interests) can be seen if you look at the long list of medical conditions for which something like Rhino horn is considered to be an effective treatment; “High fever, sun stroke, trauma, mania, convulsion, sore throat, epilepsy, febrile disease, infectious disease, macula, bad skin conditions, subcutaneous bleeding.”  It works for just about everything. And this goes for all TCM modalities. TCM researchers are completely happy to entertain this notion because they are actively trying to sell the energy concept to the public, and once accepted by the public, they will flood the market with TCM modalities.

It is also remarkable to think, and please correct me if I am wrong, that there are still people in China that die due to any medical condition after receiving a specific TCM treatment – if this energy field exist this should not really happen. Granted, due to logistical issues, some people might not receive their lifesaving TCM modalities in time but surely there are people who died even after timely administration of a TCM remedy?  And for that matter, if TCM works so well, why would China import or use modern conventional medicine which is, according to the TCM proponents, ineffective, toxic, expensive etc. Surely, you are not going to replace something that works (TCM) with something that doesn’t work (conventional medicine)! Or is maybe the other way around?

Another interesting aspect regarding TCM is that it seems to be impossible to make a mistake (is it even possible to misdiagnose a patient?). Take acupuncture for example: the theory, or should I say, hypothesis, is that pain is caused by either an excess or deficiency of energy (as explained by the NICM in the very interesting radio interview). Acupuncture restores this energy balance and hence your back pain, which might have been diagnosed as an excess of energy, will now dissipates. But what will happen if an inexperienced acupuncturist use too many, or too few needles and maybe even insert them at the wrong acupoints?  According to the hypothesis, too much energy will now flow from your lower back and this will cause an excess of energy somewhere else (causing pain in that region), but your backpain will still be there because you now have a deficiency of energy in your lower back.  Is this sort of treatment ‘mistakes’ known to happen in acupuncture? Puncturing of an organ or infection due to dirty needles is well known but I am not aware of any examples where the above-mentioned treatment ‘mistakes’ have been documented. If these energy fields do exist this should happen quite regularly. The only explanation that this doesn’t really happen is that these energy fields simply do not exist.

TCM researchers including the NICM have no interest in studying the “energy” aspect of TCM and their only purpose is to sell these pseudoscientific principles to the public. More TCM products means more profit. For the NICM this should pave the way to open their very own TCM hospital in Sydney where the Australian population will be used as guinea pigs. I truly feel sorry for Australians because it appears that it is not only their cricket team that is struggling at the moment, some of their universities are in real trouble because they decided to put profits and pseudoscience, before science, scientific education and the welfare of the public.

(this article appeared as a guest post on Prof Edzard Ernst’s blog site)

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