Experts in traditional Chinese medicine are warning patients to avoid unlicensed acupuncture practitioners after an apparent case of spontaneous human combustion.

Baton Rouge, LA-When investigators climbed from out of the smoldering debris that was the home of Hank Thomas, the looks on their faces told the gathering crowd what these hardened veterans of the Baton Rouge Fire Department couldn’t put into words. Thomas, a yoga instructor and avid fisherman who had lived in Baton Rouge his entire life, had exploded. And as the grisly details slowly emerge, people are asking questions about what might be to blame and how they can prevent being the next Baton Rougian to erupt into a massive fireball of body parts and Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning.

Some local medical professionals have proposed a controversial theory. Based on reports that Thomas has undergone acupuncture treatments for sciatica several times in the weeks preceding his untimely fulmination, a group of local experts are speaking out. They are warning the community to beware of discount acupuncture clinics.

“We aren’t saying that every incidence of spontaneous human combustion is linked to the incorrect placement of acupuncture needles,” Kuang Zhu LAC, Chief of Pragmatic Acupuncture in the Health and Wellness division of Vic’s Day Spa and Pet Grooming Center, explained during a recent press conference. “But in some cases, there is a relationship that is hard to explain otherwise.”

Zhu, a legally licensed acupuncturist in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for over thirty years and founder of the “Know Your Needler!” campaign, is reaching out to the Baton Rouge community because of concerns that there are patients seeking care from unlicensed and poorly trained practitioners that don’t charge as much per session. “These rogue needle-wielding impersonators don’t fully grasp the power of acupuncture, acupressure, sonopuncture, electroacupuncture, cold laser therapy, or any of the other ancient techniques of stimulating specific acupoints. With great ability to heal, comes an equal ability to harm.”

Acupuncture, a component of Traditional Chinese Medicine developed sometime in the past 5,000 years, involves the insertion of small needles into specific points on the body in order to improve the flow of life energy or Qi. These points are found along meridians, major pathways in the body through which our life energy courses that are different from blood vessels, nerves and lymphatics in that Western science has been unable to locate them during anatomical investigation or with modern imaging techniques. When Qi is obstructed, it becomes stagnant and illness develops. Properly placed needles relieve this obstruction and improve our health in a number of ways. Needles placed haphazardly can, according to Zhu, lead to further obstruction, a worsening of one’s health, and perhaps even a fiery death.

Zhu states that the phenomenon of injury by inappropriate acupuncture is not new. He has seen countless milder cases over his three decades of practice in the United States. But the worst occurred during his childhood in China. “Neighborhood gangs and even local police forces would use purposefully incorrect acupuncture as punishment or as an interrogation enhancer,” Zhu revealed. “Once I saw a body with the hao zhen needles still inserted in acupoints I did not even know existed. Oh, the disharmony! My childhood ended that day. I’ve heard that the American military is even using acupuncture on the battlefield now.”

But not every local acupuncturist supports Zhu’s theory that excessive and erroneous needle placement is to blame for unexplained explosions of American citizens. Frank Grimes, a Baton Rouge chiropractor who incorporates acupuncture into his armamentarium of healing modalities, reminds us that correlation doesn’t always equal causation. “Yes, some of the remaining body parts have been found with needles still in them,” He admits. “But my concern is that linking acupuncture to spontaneous human combustion is akin to the claim that chiropractic manipulation of the neck causes strokes. Perhaps people who are already about to explode seek out acupuncture for symptomatic relief.”

At the heart of this issue for Zhu and his colleagues is the health of their community. He admits that acupuncture-induced detonation is likely rare despite the recent occurrence, and that most people who receive acupuncture from improperly trained practitioners will at most only experience mild stagnation of Qi. “Thankfully most of these victims of acupuncture fraud do not suffer from serious conditions and will improve with the passage of time. My main concern is that the people who do have dangerous imbalances in their yin or yang might delay seeking out proper care just to save a few bucks.”

Zhu also expressed concern for subjects of clinical trials testing the effectiveness of acupuncture. “I worry that study participants exposed to phony acupuncture may be at risk for continued imbalances or worse.” In addition to raising awareness of the dangers of improperly performed acupuncture, the Know Your Needler! campaign is also calling for the immediate end of all placebo-controlled trials that incorporate sham acupuncture.

Okay, I made this up. It’s clearly satire, but if you were fooled please follow this link and start reading. It may be a joke but this phony news piece does have a point, and it wasn’t just to poke some fun at acupuncture adherents and their claims, or science reporting these days. I did enjoy doing that tremendously, however.

To my knowledge, there has yet to be discovered a medical treatment that works by altering the structure or physiology of the body that is completely risk free. Whether pharmaceutical or “natural”, Eastern or Western, homeopathic or allopathic, if there is both a specific and measurable therapeutic benefit there is always the potential for negative side effects. Sure, the range of side effects vary from the extremely mild and annoying to deadly, but they are always there.

Some legitimate therapies are extremely safe when used or dosed appropriately but as the old saying goes, the poison is often in the dose. Even dihydrogen oxide is dangerous when a large enough amount is ingested, leading to water intoxication, hyponatremia, seizures and eventually death. But most interventions will carry varying degrees of risk at recommended doses as well as when overdone. Even minor surgical procedures, such as the simple incision and drainage of a small abscess that can be performed in most physicians’ offices, can lead to unanticipated complications. Again the risk can be quite small, or even negligible, and the benefits almost always outweigh these risks, but there is no such thing as a free lunch in the world of medicine.

Many of the proposed health benefits of alternative medical therapies, an arbitrary and often nonsensical collection of treatments and approaches to health care, are decidedly non-specific. They rely on subjective placebo effects elicited by bias and altered perception without measurable objective improvement. Claims of benefits related to their use tend to involve such nebulous entities as boosting of the immune system (but never which component), reducing stress, improving mood, vague references to organ health (splenic fatigue?) and the enhancement of male.

Claims of this type, of which there are a seemingly endless supply, are very effective at what they were designed to do. Thanks in large part to comical governmental regulation, the also seemingly endless supply of people willing to be separated from their money are enticed by statements which are never subjected to the nuisance of providing supporting evidence outside of the occasional testimonial. Acupuncture in particular thrives on placebo effects and vague claims, and does not deserve its place at the top of the heap in regards to public and physician perception of legitimacy.

Unfortunately it doesn’t stop there. When proponents of irregular medicine make specific claims, such as ginkgo biloba preventing the onset of dementia in the elderly, or chiropractic adjustments being effective in treating asthma, the results of the few properly designed studies range from equivocal to negative. Despite the reality that thus far no alternative therapy has been shown to be effective for any specific condition, practitioners of even the most ludicrous of modalities forge ahead unfazed.

So if acupuncture has a specific effect on the physiology of the body, by altering the release of neurotransmitters or increasing the secretion of endogenous hormones, or whatever proposed biological mechanism you prefer, and it is capable of impacting specific diseases, then there must be the potential for unwanted side effects. And I don’t mean just the obvious infectious issues associated with the use of unclean needles/hands or the potential for traumatic injury when needles are shoved through the linings of the heart or lungs. And, of course, I also don’t truly believe that there must be catastrophic side effects equivalent to spontaneously bursting into flames.

If acupuncture works for the host of conditions its proponents claim it to, conditions as disparate as Parkinson’s disease and polycystic ovarian disease, then there has to be a downside. Whatever alterations in the physiology of the body to improve fertility, relieve migraines and lower cholesterol, they can’t be risk free. I take the extreme difficulty in finding discussion of any such acupuncture side effects by proponents as evidence for the lack of any effect at all. To me, the absurdity of such an extreme side effect as exploding due to pent up Qi is equally matched by the ridiculous claim that shoving tiny needles into a patient’s skin results in an effect beyond that of placebo.


Posted by Clay Jones

Clay Jones, M.D. is a pediatrician and a regular contributor to the Science-Based Medicine blog. He primarily cares for healthy newborns and hospitalized children, and devotes his full time to educating pediatric residents and medical students. Dr. Jones first became aware of and interested in the incursion of pseudoscience into his chosen profession while completing his pediatric residency at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital a decade ago. He has since focused his efforts on teaching the application of critical thinking and scientific skepticism to the practice of pediatric medicine. Dr. Jones has no conflicts of interest to disclose and no ties to the pharmaceutical industry. He can be found on Twitter as @SBMPediatrics and is the co-host of The Prism Podcast with fellow SBM contributor Grant Ritchey. The comments expressed by Dr. Jones are his own and do not represent the views or opinions of Newton-Wellesley Hospital or its administration.