MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

Several previously published clinical trials have suggested that both acupuncture and sham acupuncture exert significant, non-specific effects on treatment outcomes when compared to no-treatment controls. A recently developed framework (mechanisms in orthodox and complementary and alternative medicine-MOCAM) suggests that the non-specific effects of acupuncture originate from multiple domains (e.g. patient characteristics, acupuncturist skill/technique, the patient-acupuncturist relationship, and the acupuncture environment). However, it remains to be determined precisely how these domains influence the non-specific effects of treatment among patients receiving acupuncture and sham acupuncture in clinical trials.

To address this issue, researchers conducted a systematic review to synthesize existing qualitative evidence on how trial participants randomized to acupuncture and sham acupuncture groups experience non-specific effects, regardless of the types of medical conditions investigated.

This systematic review included primary qualitative studies embedded in randomized controlled trials designed to investigate acupuncture or sham acupuncture interventions. Eligible studies published in English were derived from a search of five international databases. The methodological quality of included studies was evaluated using the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (CASP) tool. Using a framework synthesis approach, the identified MOCAM framework was adapted based on the synthesis of the available qualitative evidence.

A total of 20 studies of high methodological quality were included. The proposed model indicated that the effects of acupuncture may be increased by:

  • maintaining a professional status,
  • applying a holistic treatment approach,
  • practicing empathy,
  • providing patients with an appropriate explanation of the theory behind acupuncture and sham acupuncture.

From the patient’s perspective, the efficacy of treatment can be increased by:

  • following the lifestyle modification advice provided by acupuncturists,
  • maintaining a positive attitude toward treatment efficacy,
  • actively engaging with acupuncturists during the consultation,
  • making behavioral changes based on experience gained during the trial.

The authors concluded that the results of this study may provide a basis for improving and standardizing key components of non-specific effects in acupuncture treatment, and for improving the isolation of specific effects in future clinical trials involving acupuncture and sham acupuncture.

The authors also state that having a positive attitude and high expectations regarding treatment efficacy can lead to positive health outcomes, along with a sense of curiosity and altruistic desire to join clinical trials. Indeed, previous clinical trials have reported that higher expectations regarding treatment effects may help to reduce fatigue and alleviate osteoarthritis in both acupuncture and sham acupuncture groups. Similar benefits of positive expectations have also been observed among patients with irritable bowel syndrome in sham acupuncture trials. 

SO CLOSE AND YET SO FAR!

So close to admitting that these findings indicate quite strongly that acupuncture is but a theatrical placebo.

2 Responses to More evidence to suggest that acupuncture is but a theatrical placebo

  • Does the study talk about evidence for specific effects at all? Sorry, it’s behind a pay wall otherwise I’d read it: There are studies that also suggest effects beyond placebo for acupuncture. So isn’t another conclusion that acupuncture of various types (including ‘sham’) have strong non-specific effects, as well as important specific effects, and that outcomes are increased even further when the practitioner follows good basic principles of patient care (as would presumably be the case in any intervention)?

    • @Tom
      I keep pointing out that sticking needles in people is not without serious risks. Adverse events caused by acupuncture have caused death, even when performed by “professionals”. Accumulated evidence all points in the same direction, that the needling part of the acupuncture ritual has no specific effect of its own. So the risk benefit ratio approaches infinity.

      You can achieve the same non-specific (often called “placebo”) effects as listed, without causing injury or putting your customer at risk.
      This means that there is no justification for the traumatic factor, which should be strongly discouraged or even banned.

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