THURSDAY: NIH Gets the Point

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WASHINGTON: Sober, scientific Occidental medicine has always been a little condescending toward the mysteries of the East. Acupuncture, the idea that the body-wide insertion of long thin metal needles can ease pain, is no exception.

But where the American people go, its Government must surely follow. Thus Tuesday a panel convened by the National Institutes of Health announced, after an arduous study, that —surprise! — acupuncture may actually work.

The panel concluded "there is clear evidence that needle acupuncture treatment is effective for postoperative and chemotherapy nausea and vomiting, nausea of pregnancy, and postoperative dental pain," and "there are a number of other pain-related conditions for which acupuncture may be effective as an adjunct therapy."

Of course, they don't know why. For Western scientists, the mystery is that the acupuncturist's supposed "life force meridians" on the body conforms to no biological systems that they know of. And it worries some that the cause of the discomfort is not addressed, just the discomfort itself — rather like taking an asprin to dull your headache.

But with millions of Americans spending $500 million a year on the procedures, matters of ethics and science are merely academic. All patients want is their HMOs to reimburse them for something they swear gets results. This panel is likely to help.