Acupuncture Works! (Just as Well as Fake Acupuncture Anyway)

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.

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3 Responses to Acupuncture Works! (Just as Well as Fake Acupuncture Anyway)

  1. J sehler says:

    PLACEBO affect is obtained in ALL types of care!!

    Study Questions Value of Common Knee Surgery – WebMD…/knee…/study-questions-value-of-common-knee-surge...
    Dec 26, 2013 – Study Questions Value of Common Knee Surgery … following a common orthopedic procedure appear to be largely due to the placebo effect, …

    Fake Knee Surgery as Good as Real Procedure, Study Finds – WSJ…/SB10001424052702304244904579278442014913458
    Dec 25, 2013 – As many as 700,000 people in the U.S. undergo knee surgery each year ….. MB, This Placebo effect could save Obama-Care, the government …

    Study: Arthroscopic Knee Surgery No Better Than Sham Surgery…/arthroscopic-knee-surgery.aspx
    Feb 7, 2014 – A recent Finland study concludes that the real knee surgeries offer no better … Although the exact mechanisms of the placebo effect are not well …

    In Trial, Placebo Knee Surgery Looks as Good as the Real Thing ……/trial-placebo-knee-surgery-looks-good-r…
    Dec 27, 2013 – In Trial, Placebo Knee Surgery Looks as Good as the Real Thing. … also covered the story and put more emphasis on the placebo effect:.

  2. skeptvet says:

    Yes, placebo effects operate with all therapies. The catch is that some therapies have effects beyond that of placebo, and others do not. “Real” acupuncture consistently fails to show greater effects in research than sham or fake acupuncture. This means acupuncture doesn’t seem to have any effects other than placebo effects. This is also true for some other alternative therapies (such as homeopathy), and for some conventional therapies (possibly some antidepressants). None of this, again, means science or science-based medicine don’t work, and certainly none of this means that alternative medicine works better. All it means is that we need careful, meticulous research, not just appeals to faith, history, or personal experience, to distinguish placebo therapies from those that have effects beyond the placebo.

  3. Pingback: Acupuncture is All Placebo | The SkeptVet

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