Another Study Shows Acupuncture is a Placebo Treatment

One consistent theme in acupuncture research is that it has proven very difficult to show any difference between the effects of acupuncture intended to treat a symptom or disease and the effects of various kinds of fake or sham acupuncture intended as a placebo control. Often, pretending to do acupuncture (inserting needles at places not thought to be acupuncture points or just pretending to insert needles) has as much of an apparent effect as “real” acupuncture treatment. (e.g. 1, 2, 3). The evidence also strongly suggests that where one places the needles during acupuncture treatment is largely irrelevant since the effect, such as it is, will be the same.

The most reasonable interpretation of this evidence is that acupuncture functions primarily a s a placebo. It is the therapeutic ritual, and possibly some small, non-specific counterirritant effects, that influence the patient. This means that all the theorizing about points and channels and both Chinese Medicine explanations of acupuncture (Five Elements, Yin/Yang, Qi, etc.) and conventional scientific attempts to explain it (endorphins, nerve stimulation, etc.) are just rationalizations for placebo effects.

The strength of this conclusion is, as always in science, proportional to the strength of the evidence. One more small piece of evidence has recently been released that supports this understanding of acupuncture.

Carolyn Ee, MBBS; Charlie Xue, PhD; Patty Chondros, PhD; Stephen P. Myers, PhD; Simon D. French, PhD; Helena Teede, PhD; and Marie Pirotta, PhD. Acupuncture for Menopausal Hot Flashes: A Randomized Trial. Ann Intern Med. Published online 19 January 2016.

This study randomly assigned 327 women with menopausal hot flashes to either acupuncture as guided by TCM principles or fake acupuncture with non-inserted needles. The bottom line was that both groups improved about 40%, but there was no difference between targeted acupuncture treatment and fake acupuncture. This is exactly what one would expect for a placebo therapy, ,and it is consistent with the growing body of evidence indication acupuncture is no more than a placebo for most uses.




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7 Responses to Another Study Shows Acupuncture is a Placebo Treatment

  1. lee says:

    As are SSRIs. Doesn’t stop physicians from prescribing them instead of outdoor exercise for depression, even though outdoor exercise has better rates of success.

  2. skeptvet says:

    Arguably true (to a point, anyway), but irrelevant.

  3. Beccy Higman says:

    SSRI’s do work for many with severe depression and that should not be dismissed as that group is far more liable to self-harm.

  4. skeptvet says:

    The evidence is complex, of course, and I’m no expert on anti-depressants for humans, but my understanding is the same; that the most recent research suggests little benefit for people with mild to moderate depression but some benefit for people with severe depression.

    Anyway, the original comment was still an attempt to suggest that acupuncture should be acceptable even if it doesn’t work because some conventional therapies turn out not to work better than placebo sometimes, which isn’t a useful or persuasive argument.

  5. Mary Anne Whitonis says:

    I cannot comment about depression but I do know that acupuncture has helped my cane corso mastiff with IVDD. It has improved her quality of life and her ability to function every day. I also do massage and acupressure on her. It has made a significant difference in her quality of life and ability to be mobile around the house and outside to her business.

  6. Tulum Soto says:

    My 12 yr old lab has been diagnosed with poly neuropahy and larynx paralysis. He has an integrative vet, but has not prescribed anything to help him other than acupuncture. I took him to see a rehab vet for underwater treadmill, chiropractic adjustments and laser therapy, but my dog refuses to do the under water treadmill exercise. The rehab vet gave me one pill for joints and that was it. I have been searching the internet for a while now which is overwhelmingly confusing. I have purchased a lot of supplements and he is eating raw meals. I want to find medications/treatments for the neuropathy including the larynx paralysis, but I don’t know enough with so much out there to guide me in helping him avoid more surgery. The larynx paralysis has me very worried. What can I do to help him breath better and avoid surgery?

    Thank you.

  7. skeptvet says:

    Unfortunately, there is no evidence that any medication, diet, or supplement is helpful for dogs with laryngeal paralysis. We don’t entirely understand the causes of the syndrome, and all we hare are unreliable anecdotes for non-surgical treatments. I understand the desire to do everything you can for your dog, but you should be aware that there is no sound reason to think anything you try will make a real difference, so I would be careful about any risks or wild claims.

    Good luck!

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