The worst part of flying is the take off and landing. Not that I am nervous about those parts of the trip, it is that I am all electronic. Once I have to turn off my electronic devices, all I am left with is my own thoughts or what is in the seat pocket in front of me. Since there is nothing to be gained from quiet introspection, I am stuck with either the in-flight magazine or SkyMall. I usually choose the latter. SkyMall, for those of you who do not fly, is a collection of catalogs bound in one volume. I have occasionally purchased products found in SkyMall and thumb through it with mild interest.

This time one product caught my eye, the home acupuncture/acupressure device. I had never noticed the ‘health’-related products in SkyMall before, usually looking for electronic gadgets that I really do not need. I was curious. How many other products besides Aculife are in the catalogue? According to the interwebs, about 100,000,000 Americans fly every year and well over half a billion people world wide. A lot of people can potentially look at SkyMall, including the occasional skeptic.

I have written about the many styles of acupuncture in the past: hand and foot and tongue and ear and head and Chinese and Japanese. So many meridians and acupuncture points, how does the body find room for it all? Aculife makes it all simple. It’s all gauche, er, I mean in the left hand.

According to makers of Aculife, you can now “help strengthen your health with the latest ancient technology.” Of course I can, and for $199.95 I had better be able to.

It is an they produce showing where the acupuncture/Aculife acupoints are. Touch one with the probe and if abnormal, flip a switch and give a little electric current to re-balance the qi. The points recommended with Aculife do not, as best I can tell, correspond very well with the diagrams on the interwebs for ‘classic’ forms of hand acupuncture, so we have yet another collection of acupoints and another style of acupuncture.

Some points are both odd and worrisome: there is a point for breast tumor, one for high blood pressure, one for chest pain and one for coffee ground emesis. Coffee ground emesis is what we in the medicine business refer to when bleeding in the stomach that has time to coagulate before vomiting. Acid blood equals a gamish that looks like coffee grounds (except for the time as an intern I was called to the psych unit to evaluate coffee ground emesis that I eventually determined was due to the fact the patient was eating coffee grounds out of the garbage). These are all serious medical symptoms or problems that could easily lead to mortality and significant morbidity if someone were to use Aculife to treat their angina or stomach bleeding or, curiously, enteric fever. There is a point for Salmonella typhi, also known as enteric fever or typhoid fever. Why this infection gets its own acupuncture point, since it is rare in the US, and a more common infection like MRSA does not, I cannot elucidate.

There are two hearts (for Klingons?), one cardiac area, and an area for left and right ventricle and atrium, all of which are separate from chest pain and rapid heart beat. Gallbladder, gallstone and inflamed gall bladder are in different places. The blood sugar and diabetes points are on different part of the hand, unless it is diabetes insipidus they are pointing to. It is so confusing.

One of the many reasons I am not a surgeon, besides having zero hand-eye coordination, is that I found gross anatomy difficult. Cadaver innards are nothing compared to the anatomy that sits on the left hand of Aculife. What, I wonder, sits on the right hand?

Fortunately, despite having points for tumors, rapid heart beat and bleeding, the device comes with the following:

WARNING: Do not use if pregnant, have a pacemaker or suffer from malignant tumors, excessive bleeding or tuberculosis. Not to be used by children under the age of 3.

An odd collection of contraindications. Tuberculosis? OK for the use S. typhi but not TB? I wonder why. I can understand a contraindication for pacemakers since the device applies current, but Tb? It seems so random. I am obviously missing the deeper understanding of disease provided by Aculife.

The advertisement also says “FDA approved.” Searching the . A 510 (k) evidently means the FDA has cleared a product for sale, but makes no claim as to efficacy and as I understand the Byzantine language at the FDA, the 510 (k) is used to classify a device’s potential safety, but not how safe it actually is. The Aculife is a class 2 device, “These devices pose a moderate level of risk to the user.” According to , it is evidently not legal to advertise a 510(k) cleared device as “FDA-approved.” If there is more to the Aculife FDA approval, I cannot find it at the FDA.

The FDA submission available at says that Aculife is intended for “use in the practice of acupuncture by qualified practitioners of acupuncture as determined by states.” So I should not purchase Aculife since I am not a qualified practitioner?

There is and most States appear to require a NCCAOM examination in acupuncture as a minimum qualification. I wonder if the FDA submissions cover the widespread marketing to anyone who flies in an airplane? The ad says “Be your own acupuncturist. Diagnose and heal yourself and your family.” Not the requirements for being qualified acupuncturist in Oregon, but the qualification granted by purchasing an Aculife is probably no worse than the results of “real” acupuncture training and taking the exam, and certainly less expensive. I would be willing to grant anyone who uses an Aculife the title Qualified Acupuncture Practitioner, regardless of State regulations. I am also King of the Moon, and anyone who uses therapeutic moon rays is, as a result, . Who can gainsay my authority and claim?

also gives the best reason yet for using acupuncture:

Ötzi, a 5,000 year old mummy found in the Alps during 1991, has spurred a whole new vigor into modern research of the Ancient Chinese medical practice of acupuncture. Recent examinations of the mummy found that Otzi has a number of tattoos that coincide with acupuncture points that would be used to treat various ailments from which he was suffering.

Ötzi’s tattoos, by the way, were not on the hands so how they relate to the Aculife is uncertain.

Ötzi had several carbon tattoos including groups of short, parallel, vertical lines to both sides of the lumbar spine, a cruciform mark behind the right knee, and various marks around both ankles.

Puh-lease. to any acupuncture map, and it would not be hard to find a correspondence between any random tattoo and an acupuncture point.

I noted in the shower this morning that some of the freckles on my left arm are close to acupuncture points and when connected with a Sharpie, closely follow a meridian. Lest you think that these are random melanin spots and melanin can’t ‘know’ where acupuncture sites are, melanin may be able to sense the power flowing in these meridians, like lay lines in the earth, and coalesce to guide future medical interventions. I once had a patient with an Omaya reservoir placed in the scalp so he could have amphotericin B injected directly into his spinal fluid to treat a fungal meningitis. The spot where we had to access the reservoir was right at a freckle on his scalp. Coincidence? I think not.

The tattoos on the mummy were not even points, but lines. As the Ötzi site says

The Iceman’s body is covered with over 50 tattoos in the form of groups of lines and crosses. Unlike modern tattooing methods, the tattoos were not produced with needles but by means of fine incisions into which charcoal was rubbed. Interestingly, Ötzi’s tattoos are located at points where his body was subjected to considerable strain during his lifetime and very probably caused him a lot of pain due to wear. The tattoos were therefore probably intended as therapeutic measures rather than as symbols.

What part of a Neolithic man was not “subjected to considerable strain during his lifetime”? Or mine, I am not Neolithic and at 53 I feel more like the Tin Man everyday.

One or several groups of vertical lines are located to the left and right of the spinal column, on the left calf, on the left instep and one the inner and outer ankle joint, two lines cross the left wrist, a cross-shaped mark appears on the back of the right knee and besides the left Achilles tendon. The Iceman had therefore undergone pain-relieving treatment on multiple occasions. Astonishingly, the tattooed areas correspond to skin acupuncture lines Before Ötzi it was thought that this treatment had only originated two thousand years later in Asia.

What is astonishing is that responsible for the evaluation of Ötzi, the Ötzi Museum.

Why would they report such speculation as fact? , which published what had to be the goofiest article ever in a major medical journal. As always, when I make a claim someone in the comments will suggest an example of something worse. I wait with breathless anticipation.

The Lancet has always had a reputation of a good journal that was always willing to publish results that may be a bit outside the box. Sometimes that is good and spurs further investigations. But given the ubiquity of acupuncture sites, anything placed on the skin could be near a acupuncture point. I have on my right palm, about a centimeter down from the webbing between the first and second finger an inadvertent tattoo. In second grade I had a piece of pencil lead accidentally jammed into my hand and the point was left behind. It is right at the cough and bronchitis point for Chinese acupuncture, the liver point of Korean acupuncture and near one of the many cardiac points of the Aculife. It is the eye point for colorpuncture and the chest/lung/upper back or thymus point, depending on which reflexologist you believe. That is one busy piece of carbon, deposited at such an energetically active intersection. I wonder what effects it has on my health.

What did they do in the Lancet ‘report’?

Because some of the tattoos on Ötzi are simple linear geometric shapes and located on less visible parts of the body they must not be decorative but of medical significance. Really. They know the mind of a 5500 year corpse. Why are they not religious symbols with no medical significance. Or maybe he was a .

I suppose if he had an ornate it would be recognized as medical as well, since no one routinely sees the small of the back and it could not possibly be ornamental. I see a fair number of homemade tat’s in the sociopathic populations of the US and I would not consider these to be decorative either. They must be medical. But from this unwarranted supposition, fertilizer is made.

The Ötzi museum says there are over 50 tat’s on the iceman. They thought 15 were near acupuncture sites. I wonder it you randomly threw 50 darts at a full sized outline of a human, how many would land near an acupuncture point? I bet more than 15.

After noting that the tat’s on the iceman could very well have moved in the last several thousand years from desiccation and skin movement (they presume they moved farther rather than closer to acupuncture sites), they measure the distance from the tat’s to the classic points. The distance ranged from 0 to 7 mm with an average of 2 mm. That seems like a random distribution to me. And these are line tat’s, so there is a lot of leeway in deciding how far from an acupuncture point they are. The Lancet paper does not mention if the distance measured is to the start, end, or middle of the line.

Like seeing bunnies in clouds, they see a pattern:

The tattoos…possibly as a guide to self-treatment marking where to puncture when pain occur. The fact that not randomly selected points were marked by tattoos, seems especially intriguing. From an acupuncturists viewpoint, the combination of points represents a meaningful therapeutic regimen.

Of course, acupuncturists believe in acupuncture, so they may be a wee bit biased. They conclude with a statement that would be right at home in Medical Hypothesis,

The above findings provide strong evidence that a form of medical therapeutics, very similar to what we know as Chinese acupuncture, was already in practice 5200 years ago in Central Europe.

This is not molehills into mountains but a grain of sand into a tectonic range. Now I am inclined to cut the authors some slack, since the paper was published in 1999. The last decade of acupuncture clinical trials have demonstrated that acupuncture points do not matter (they are pointless). It matters not where you place the needles or even if you use needles; toothpick twirling is just as good. All that matters is the patient believe they are having acupuncture performed to get, at best, a clinically negligible analgesic response to acupuncture.

I would have expected that current research into tat’s and mummies would take into account the state of the art of medical research. Not so, for it appears that , or at least one who doesn’t bother to read the literature before coming to a conclusion.

The 1000-year-old female mummy was found unwrapped in the sand of the desert at Chiribaya Alta in southern Peru in the early 1990s. She bears two distinct types of tattoos: emblems representing birds, apes, reptiles and other symbols cover her hands, arm and lower left leg, while an asymmetric pattern of overlapping circles is present on her neck.

What might those tat’s on the neck represent? Body art? Religious symbols? An emblem to ward off vampires? A landing zone for hickeys? Are they evidence of Ancient Astronauts like the Nazca lines? More reasonable solutions that the one proffered by the author:

Pabst points out that the circles are close to Chinese acupuncture points. She says that tattooing a person at these points could have worked in a similar way to how acupuncture is thought to work.

Since acupuncture doesn’t work there is no need to postulate that the tat is there for the same reason.

I think they all have it wrong. Look carefully at the location of the tattoo points. There mark the intersections of the webbing on Spiderman’s costume. These are not acupuncture points, but rather reflect the ability of both Ötzi and the Peruvian mummy to see into the future imaginings of Stan Lee. I think it makes as much sense based on the data.

It turns out that may be the in anthropology.

A new long-range plan for the American Anthropological Association that omits the word “science” from the organization’s vision for its future has exposed fissures in the discipline.

That explains it. Wild extrapolations based on minimal information is so much easier than carefully constructed conclusions based on data.

I was originally going to discuss the , the and others, but the Aculife took me down many unexpected pathways and I am the slowest writer at SBM. They did have numerous cool gadgets and products on SkyMall. Me? I really want and the . Both work using the same mechanism as acupuncture and mummy medical tattoo’s. I have ordered them and .


Posted by Mark Crislip

Mark Crislip, MD has been a practicing Infectious Disease specialist in Portland, Oregon, since 1990. He is a founder and  the President of  where he blogs under the name sbmsdictator. He has been voted a US News and World Report best US doctor, best ID doctor in Portland Magazine multiple times, has multiple teaching awards and, most importantly,  the ‘Attending Most Likely To Tell It Like It Is’ by the medical residents at his hospital. His growing multi-media empire can be found at .