The evidence has been accumulating for some time that acupuncture is an elaborate and very potent placebo that can effectively make subjective symptoms better without actually influencing the underlying disease. I have written about a number of studies illustrating this (e.g. 1, 2), and a new one has recently been published.
Rana S. Hinman; Paul McCrory; Marie Pirotta; et al. Acupuncture for Chronic Knee Pain: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2014;312(13):1313-1322. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.12660.
This study compared “real” acupuncture using needles and lasers with sham laser acupuncture and a no treatment group. Predictably, all the therapies showed a short-term benefit compared to nothing, but the sham therapy was just as successful (or unsuccessful) as the real therapy:
Analyses showed neither needle nor laser acupuncture significantly improved pain (mean difference; ?0.4 units; 95% CI, ?1.2 to 0.4, and ?0.1; 95% CI, ?0.9 to 0.7, respectively) or function (?1.7; 95% CI, ?6.1 to 2.6, and 0.5; 95% CI, ?3.4 to 4.4, respectively) compared with sham at 12 weeks. Compared with control, needle and laser acupuncture resulted in modest improvements in pain (?1.1; 95% CI, ?1.8 to ?0.4, and ?0.8; 95% CI, ?1.5 to ?0.1, respectively) at 12 weeks, but not at 1 year. Needle acupuncture resulted in modest improvement in function compared with control at 12 weeks (?3.9; 95% CI, ?7.7 to ?0.2) but was not significantly different from sham (?1.7; 95% CI, ?6.1 to 2.6) and was not maintained at 1 year. There were no differences for most secondary outcomes and no serious adverse events.
In patients older than 50 years with moderate or severe chronic knee pain, neither laser nor needle acupuncture conferred benefit over sham for pain or function.
Such studies clearly show that while acupuncture might make you feel better temporarily, via the placebo effect, it does not produce a real or lasting improvement. This is the definition of a placebo, and while people should be free to seek placebos to feel subjectively better if they want to, they should not be fooled into thinking the effects are real or that truly effective therapies are not needed. And in the case of our pets, it is very likely that the placebo benefits of acupuncture accrue only to us, and that while we feel as if we have helped our pets, we really have not. It is in this misconception, more than the rare physical injuries associated with acupuncture, that the real risk in this treatment methods lies.