Grab Your Sewing Kit: Fake Acupuncture Works!

Score another round—sort of—for alternative medicine. In what may be the funniest medical study fake-out so far, German scientists report that patients who received fake acupuncture in their lower back reported relief at almost-but-not-quite the same rate as those who received legit acupuncture: 44% of patients improved, versus 47% of those who received real acupuncture and 25% of those who received conventional treatment reported improvements.

So what constitutes fake acupuncture?

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.

The study excluded people with spinal fractures, tumors, or scoliosis, as well as pregnant women.

In Germany, the study has led to an increase in health insurance coverage of acupuncture treatments. In the United States, plan coverage for the treatment varies, and an expert says that an average session costs between $45 and $100. But as we now know, thanks to this study, you can save that money and just pay your kid $5 to stick needles randomly in your back until the pain goes away. Or you’re paralyzed.

(BOILERPLATE CYA WARNING TO PROTECT US FROM IDIOTS: don’t look to The Consumerist for medical advice, we are not doctors or sage Chinese healers, blah blah blah.)

“Study: Acupuncture Works for Back Pain” [Associated Press]
(Photo: Getty)

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  1. Shadowman615 says:

    Well this sounds like it proved the opposite was true — that acupuncture treatment doesn’t work any better than a placebo.

  2. llcooljabe says:

    Does this mean it works, or it has a “placebo effect”?

  3. MonkeyMonk says:

    The best thing about this study is that even fake acupuncture appears to work better than “conventional treatment.” What was conventional treatment . . . take an aspirin and call me in the morning?

  4. BobbyMike says:

    Cool, now I can open up a school of Fake Acupuncture!

  5. “you can save that money and just pay your kid $5 to stick needles randomly in your back until the pain goes away.”

    Just make sure you give your kid really, really tiny needles. Sewing needles hurt like a bitch going in.

  6. Christovir says:

    @llcooljabe: That would appear unclear. The fact that the conventional method worked so poorly suggest that both real and fake acupuncture are having some kind of effect. If it were all placebo, you would expect all 3 conditions to be roughly the same. Double the conventional improvement rates (47% vs 25%) is impressive, and suggests additional factors are at play.

  7. bohemian says:

    Your looking at the study from the wrong angle. Conventional therapy scored LESS than a placebo.

    That is what people should be looking at. Most conventional back care consists of rest, drug, and possibly physical therapy that transitions into exercise. The fact that accupuncture or placebo is TWICE as effective as conventional treatment should have people seriously questioning standard treatment.

    Here’s a hint on my the placebo treatment might actually be giving people some benefit. There is a technique called “needling”. This is where a needle is stuck into a spasming muscle or trigger point in the muscle. The action of just poking a needle into it can cause the cycle of pain and spasm to break. Even in conventional treatment they acknowledge that needling an area in itself provides some treatment. This is usually in conjunction with injecting an anestetic or steroid into a problem area of the back.

    This is probably why the placebo treatment actually got such a high score.

  8. bohemian says:

    WHY the placecbo treatment might actually ….

    fumble fingers, needs more coffee.

  9. vanilla-fro says:

    Were chiropractors included in the “conventional” treatment? Because I think that does sound about right. people have to go to a chiro about 10-20 times before there is a big difference (more if they were in a car accident that was somebody else’s fault).

  10. Mariallena says:

    It is very funny that the headline is “Accupuncture works” but the article says exactly the opposite.

    If the only difference between the rates of success for your treatment and your placebo is 3% like in this case, it clearly means your “treatment” doesn’t work.

  11. andrewsmash says:

    Oh…the ignorance…it hurts my head. The reason sham acupuncture was used in the study is because, due to the rules of western scientific research, you need some form of ‘sham’ treatment in order to offset the difference between the placebo effect and any active treatment given by the drug in question Yes, this methodology was developed for pharmaceuticals, so using it judge any form of physically based treatment is inherently problematic. The unfortunate choice of this method of sham acupuncture is that any acupuncture needle inserted into the skin will have a therapeutic effect. If you don’t believe this method of treatment (very shallow needle insertion) is effective, you should research Japanese acupuncture. It relies on shallowly inserted needles left in for a short amount of time. In order to be a educated consumer, it is important to understand how products get approval to be marketed. This study was an important step in trying to show the efficacy of an alternative treatment using western standards, and could have been a good step in teaching people how treatments are approved by both the FDA and insurance companies. In this case, consumerist just proved how ignorant it is.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Misleading AP headline, not “Acupuncture Works” but “Sticking Needles in You Works.” This study goes a long way to showing that the theory behind acupuncture is iron-age bunk, which disappoints me on some level. Unsurprisingly, “conventional” treatments of drugs and physical therapy were less effective – but why?

    The authors speculated that the pain signals from the needles “outcompeted” pain signals from the back. As a sufferer of aches and pains, I appreciate how incredibly psychosomatic they are, and vote for placebo-effect all the way.

  13. Havok154 says:

    “After being told they were given a fake treatment, 95% of the patients fell on the ground in agony.”

  14. synergy says:

    @Mariallena: Sure it works. Just not all the time. Only about half the time. ;)

    I agree. I think it’s funny that the two methods that you’d think someone would be trying to look bad actually worked better than conventional medicine – nearly twice as well.

    I’d also like to know who they studied, what were their ailments, and were they on equal par in severity. Oh and what was the sample size: 100 people? 200?

  15. CumaeanSibyl says:

    Wow, so the standard of care for back pain is “let’s do something that only works for a quarter of people.” No wonder my friends with chronic pain problems are constantly bitching that the doctors aren’t helping.

  16. Wow, so the standard of care for back pain is “let’s do something that only works for a quarter of people.”

    If people insist on treatment, yes.

    An honest doctor will come right out and say that most back pain comes and goes all by itself. In those cases – when there’s no identifiable underlying organic illness, and no, the elusive chiropractic subluxation does not count – you just need a few weeks or months of “suffering time” and then you’ll get better, no matter what you do.

    Patients then often, understandably, erroneously conclude that whatever they did last was what cured the pain.

    But placebos are also well known to be effective against subjective conditions with no clearly identifiable endpoints, like chronic pain. This is not surprising, as simple distraction can work well too; everybody’s experienced a toothache or ingrown toenail or whatever that doesn’t bother them nearly as much when they’re engrossed in a task.

    The more elaborate and impressive a placebo procedure is, the more effective it is likely to be in these situations – provided the patient believes in it. Sham acupuncture with trick needles that don’t actually pierce the skin at all works better against chronic pain than a boring old placebo pill!

  17. bobdorris says:

    I am an acupuncturist / Doctor of Oriental Medicine. I’ve been following the “real vs. sham vs. conventional” studies for quite a while.

    Properly trained acupuncturists (masters degree level) understand that the “sham” acupuncture is not really sham, and that it’s nearly impossible to perform any type of sham acupuncture (see below.)

    Therefore, the only test for determining it’s usage and effectiveness is NOT comparing it to sham acupuncture, but rather to compare it to conventional treatment.

    There’s two reasons why “sham” acupuncture works nearly as well as real acupuncture.

    One common acupuncture technique involves “surrounding” the area of pain with needles rather than putting them into specific points. It’s very effective. (It also can work with shallow insertion.)

    Also, acupuncture research has shown that needling the body stimulates a “general healing reaction” throughout the entire body. It’s sort of like when you get a cut or injury and your body responds with a healing reaction… but the “injury” is caused by tiny needles.

    There’s been studies using needles that go back into the handle rather than into the person when pressed on the skin, calling that sham acupuncture. Unfortunately, that still constitutes at least acupressure and is therefore not “sham”.
    (I actually use a tool in my clinic that does exactly that to treat patients who are afraid of needles… it works well.)

    A study today published today in ScienceDaily [www.sciencedaily.com]
    used that exact method for the “sham” acupuncture.
    Since they based their conclusions on their mistaken belief that the “sham” was actually a sham rather than acupressure, their statistical results have no meaning. The should have compared the results with “conventional” treatment.

    The apparent conclusions drawn by these studies depends on who’s reporting, or “spinning”, them.
    The statement that “acupuncture works no better that sham acupuncture” can be interpreted as either “acupuncture doesn’t work”… or as “sham acupuncture DOES work…

    …the results only have meaning in comparison to the conventional treatments currently in use.

    One final point… the conclusion often drawn from these studies is that acupuncture must only be a “placebo”, and is therefore dismissed as ineffective. Acupuncture has too high an effectiveness rate to be only placebo effect, but even if it were…

    …any treatment that has a high effectiveness rate, using ONLY a person’s belief system to heal them, and has no side effects (which is exactly how a placebo works) should never be dismissed as ineffective. Rather, it should merit further study.

  18. vanilla-fro says:

    @bobdorris: Totally agree. If I’m dying of something and somebody gives me a placebo that gets rid of it…it ain’t a placebo. It worked and I don’t care why.

    Also don’t placebos not work on everyone? if this is true then this was not a placebo effect anyway.