Study Finds Acupuncture Has Placebo Effect

By Pat Anson, Editor

When it comes to acupuncture, perception apparently does matter.

British researchers found in a new study that people with back pain who believe acupuncture will not help or do little to relieve their symptoms will gain less benefit from treatment than people who believe it works.

And people who feel they can manage their back pain have less disability as a result of acupuncture treatment.

“They experienced less disability over the course of treatment when they came to see their back pain as more controllable, when they felt they had better understanding of their back pain, when they felt better able to cope with it, were less emotional about it, and when they felt their back pain was going to have less of an impact on their lives," said Felicity Bishop, PhD, an Arthritis Research UK career development fellow.

Bishop and her colleagues at the University of Southampton wanted to find out why some people with back pain gain more benefit from acupuncture than others. They recruited 485 people with back pain and asked them to complete questionnaires before they saw an acupuncturist; as well as two weeks, three months and six months after starting treatment. The questions measured psychological factors, clinical and demographic characteristics, and back-related disability.

The study, which was funded by Arthritis Research UK, is being published in The Journal of Clinical Pain.

"The analysis showed that psychological factors were consistently associated with back-related disability," said Bishop, who believes acupuncturists should consider helping patients think more positively about their back pain as part of their treatment.

"People who started out with very low expectations of acupuncture -- who thought it probably would not help them -- were more likely to report less benefit as treatment went on,” she said.

Previous research has shown that many factors -- other than the insertion of needles – can play a role in the effectiveness of acupuncture, such as the relationship that the patient develops with the acupuncturist and the patient's belief about acupuncture.

"This study emphasises the influence of the placebo effect on pain. The process whereby the brain's processing of different emotions in relation to their treatment can influence outcome is a really important area for research,” said Dr. Stephen Simpson, director of research at Arthritis Research UK.

Acupuncture, which was originally developed as part of traditional Chinese medicine, is one of the most widely practiced forms of alternative medicine. As many as 3 million Americans receive acupuncture treatments, most often for relief of chronic pain.

While there is little consensus in the medical community about acupuncture’s value, a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that relief offered by acupuncture is real and should be considered a viable form of treatment .

Focusing on patients who reported chronic back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, chronic headache and shoulder pain, researchers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York conducted a meta-analysis (a study of studies) of 29 studies involving nearly 18,000 adults.

“Acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic pain and is therefore a reasonable referral option. Significant differences between true and sham acupuncture indicate that acupuncture is more than a placebo,” the study concluded. “However, these differences are relatively modest, suggesting that factors in addition to the specific effects of needling are important contributors to the therapeutic effects of acupuncture.