Don't Cross Your Eyes...They'll Get Stuck That Way!

And 75 Other Health Myths Debunked

Dr. Aaron E. Carroll and Dr. Rachel C. Vreeman

St. Martin's Griffin


You know what’ll really get rid of that cold?… Acupuncture

No one likes having a cold. Whether you hate the cough and sore throat the most, or whether it is the sniffling and congestion that wears you out, you want that cold to be finished as soon as possible. Here in the United States, you may be more likely to try vitamin C or echinacea, but in other parts of the world, such as in Japan and China, acupuncture is a more common alternative therapy for cold relief.
In careful studies, acupuncture has been shown to work for a number of medical problems. It can be an effective way to treat the nausea that many people feel after they have surgery and anesthesia. It can cut down on the vomiting that cancer patients experience when they are getting chemotherapy. It can help with some kinds of pain, including childbirth, pain from shoulder or neck injuries, and chronic back pain. But acupuncture does not work for every problem. In studies where acupuncture was used to treat cocaine addiction, depression, insomnia, or irritable bowel syndrome, it did not help patients.
Few cold remedies actually work, so it is not surprising people would want to give acupuncture a whirl. Unfortunately, there is very little evidence that acupuncture works to prevent or treat colds. In the medical literature, most of the studies using acupuncture in this way come from Japan. Two of them examined whether acupuncture could prevent people from catching colds. Both of these “studies” showed that acupuncture was useful for preventing colds, but we put the word “studies” in quotation marks for a good reason: they were only case reports of people who had used acupuncture frequently and seemed to have fewer colds. In fact, the two reports only looked at three people. The experiences of three people are not enough to decide whether a cold prevention method works and should not be counted as actual research.
A final study from Japan looked at whether the students and staff in five Japanese acupuncture schools had any fewer colds or any fewer cold symptoms if they received acupuncture. This study included more people (326). Although those receiving acupuncture did report fewer cold symptoms in an overall questionnaire, there was no difference in how many days the participants were reporting cold symptoms in daily diary records.
There were several other problems with this study. First, the most accurate measure of whether the people in the study were having cold symptoms did not show any improvement with acupuncture. The participants only thought there was a difference when they were asked about the overall picture. This might be explained in part by another problem with the methodology: there was no fake acupuncture, or placebo, used for the group that did not get acupuncture for cold symptoms. The people who had acupuncture knew that they had had acupuncture, and so it is possible that they remembered differently because they thought the acupuncture had made things better. The study was also flawed because there were significant differences in the groups being studied even before the study began.
There is no good evidence to suggest that acupuncture will stop you from catching a cold or that it will make your cold symptoms any better. While acupuncture could be studied more carefully for coughs and colds, as it has been for other health problems, there is no convincing reason to believe (yet) that acupuncture is just the thing for your cold.

Copyright © 2011 by Dr. Aaron Carroll and Dr. Rachel C. Vreeman