Sham Acupuncture

Something I read today I thought was very interesting – western medicine doesn’t work as well as fake non-medicine, at least for lower back pain. A study found that fake acupuncture worked nearly as well as real acupuncture, and both of those were nearly twice as effective as western medicine.

In the largest experiment on acupuncture for back pain to date, more than 1,100 patients were randomly assigned to receive either acupuncture, sham acupuncture or conventional therapy. For the sham acupuncture, needles were inserted, but not as deeply as for the real thing. The sham acupuncture also did not insert needles in traditional acupuncture points on the body and the needles were not manually moved and rotated.

After six months, patients answered questions about pain and functional ability and their scores determined how well each of the therapies worked.

In the real acupuncture group, 47 percent of patients improved. In the sham acupuncture group, 44 percent did. In the usual care group, 27 percent got relief.

To me it seems obvious that much of the pain relief comes from just *thinking* you’re going to get relief. The next question I’d have is, if you know that going in, do you need treatment at all? Or just think about getting treatment?

6 thoughts on “Sham Acupuncture”

  1. Or maybe it means even bad accupuncture is better than good modern medicine?

    I wonder why the people getting “real” modern medicine didn’t think they were going to get relief?

    Personally, I’m not wild about the idea of voluntarily doing anything with “puncture” as part of it’s name.


  2. Teens often practice “cutting” to help relieve emonial pain and stress, and “dry needling” of trigger points (puncture with no injectable) has been shown to relieve the pain of Fibromyalgia, another disease with no “known cause”. Maybe we ought to start to look for a mechanism in the CNS that would explain this phenomenon and acupuncture as well.


  3. If it was the expectation of benefit that caused patients to think they got better, wouldn’t the western-medicine patients also expect to get better with their treatment?

    Sham acupuncture is basically impossible because there is nowhere you can put a needle that will not affect the energy flow in the body, and people will be able to tell if you only pretend to insert the needle. Studies usually show this, appropriate points work best, other points works somewhat as well.

    It is very difficult to use the Western scientific method to judge Eastern medicine. Western research methodology requires that you treat everyone the same except for one variable. Eastern medicine’s forte is in treating everyone individually.

    If we have to treat everyone the same, we are not practicing Oriental Medicine and the study is not evaluating Oriental Medicine, it is evaluating a standardized set of points n treating one common symptom. OM practitioners know to use different point combinations for different patients, but we cannot in the confines of a double-blind, randomized and controlled study. This is why study results do not mirror those found anecdotally in the clinic. In my practice, treating individually, I see about a 90% improvement rate with back pain.

    Jason Bussell
    President – Illinois Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine


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