Decolonizing Acupuncture

Where we critique clinical methods used in contemporary acupuncture research  


Danica Pietrzak 

Esther Lee

Eddie Jackson 


Lan Li

Summer Nguyen

Sophia Peng

literature review


  Project Description

Despite increasing biomedical research in the therapeutic mechanisms and outcomes of acupuncture practice, the full scope of research standards and evaluation remains unclear. This research cluster aims to review and examine the ways in which biomedical standards of research interrogate acupuncture and, in the process of that interrogation, reveal the deep inadequacies of “gold standard” protocol such as randomized control trials. Our methods contain literature reviews of journals including the Journal of Acupuncture research, the Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies, Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics, Chinese Medicine, Alternative and Complementary Medicine,  Anesthesia & Analgesia, Multidisciplinary Healthcare and clinical trials, review articles, and case studies.

Authors' statement


I grew up what what I've called naturopathic medicine. My family always tried a home remedy for what I ate, drank, and even used when I was sick. Lemon water for my throat, lavender for sleep, ginger for my stomach, pressure points for nausea. I was sheltered from the world of king candy bars and jumbo cheese grits for as long as my mother could manage.

As I grew older, I found a passion for research. I thrived on applying the scientific method to all aspects of my life, constantly asking the question “why?” and then going through the steps. I pursued this passion, which brought me in contact with many people I am proud to call my mentors. But, my world of lemon water and lavender did not line up with my world of beakers and bubblers. I found doubt of natural methods in my research community, citing studies that I hurriedly looked up and was horrified to read. These studies told me that many of the beliefs I had, and that my mother had as well, were the farthest thing from the truth.

But the more research I read, the more I learned about what a truly good research study contains. And from that I learned a secret: research is not infallible. By questioning not just the results, but the methods of biomedical approaches  to acupuncture, I found that results can vary with each test method and researcher. I was not alone in my endeavor to better understand acupuncture and its ties to the limits and intentions of research protocol, standards, and expectations.


Growing up in Seoul, Korean Medicine 한의학 found its way into my childhood, from the Korean Medicine clinic across from my music school that spread the strong, distinctive scent of traditional herbal medicine, to the decorative gift boxes of red ginseng products gifted around New Years, to my various family members seeking acupuncture 침요법 when for different tension or pain-related symptoms.

However, as a pre-medical student brought up in a physician’s family, I was also taught by many to trust scientific methods and scientific evidence over tradition. Yet my cultural background allowed me to form a natural trust in Chinese/Korean medical therapeutics. With this juxtaposition between  hesitation and acceptance towards East Asian medical practices in mind, I dove headfirst into research on the history of TCM and specifically the practice of acupuncture. Looking at articles from Korean and global journals on Bonghan Ducts, observational studies of cancer patients, and acupuncture in diseases indirectly related to muscle or bone pain such as gastroesophageal reflux disease, I was drawn to this opportunity in the MRD lab to take an academic approach towards acupuncture and to take a dive in its modern research.

Throughout this research, I was intrigued by the biomedical colonization of non-western ideas. Reading pieces by medical anthropologists, historians and scholar-practitioners showed me how acupuncture is being held to a double standard through applying the scientific method, as well as being extremely reduced into a practice that easily fits into the already existing biomedical practice. Through tagging multiple clinical acupuncture articles, I discovered two themes of the myth of research and the reality of research when it comes to acupuncture.



Soares, Heloisa P., Stephanie Daniels, Ambuj Kumar, Mike Clarke, Charles Scott, Suzanne Swann, and Benjamin Djulbegovic. "Bad reporting does not mean bad methods for randomised trials: observational study of randomised controlled trials performed by the Radiation Therapy Oncology Group." Bmj 328, no. 7430 (2004): 22-24

Jepsen, Peter, Soren Paaske Johnsen, M. W. Gillman, and H. T. Sørensen. "Interpretation of observational studies." Heart 90, no. 8 (2004): 956-960.

Scheid, Volker. “Traditional Chinese Medicine—What Are We Investigating?” Complementary Therapies in Medicine 15, no. 1 (2007): 54–68.

Prakash Kumar, Projit Bihari Mukharji, and Amit Prasad. "Decolonizing Science in Asia." <i>Verge: Studies in Global Asias</i> 4, no. 1 (2018): 24-43. Accessed August 18, 2021. doi:10.5749/vergstudglobasia.4.1.0024.


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