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ACUPUNCTURE: It works, and here's why

The British press has been filling its pages in recent days with news that acupuncture actually works, which comes as a surprise to nobody - except the British press, clearly.

The news that pushed coverage of a boring election campaign from page 492 is the report of a trial that demonstrates that acupuncture can genuinely relieve pain.
The main ambition of the study was not, however, to test whether acupuncture is a pain-reliever - enough trials have already established that. Instead, it set out to discover why it works. Up to now most scientists (and doctors) were convinced that acupuncture works only at the placebo level - in other words, the patient believed that acupuncture would work, and so felt better as a result. But the new study has discovered that the brain responses are different to acupuncture compared with 'dummy' acupuncture, which simulates 'real' acupuncture.

Study group leader Dr George Lewith said that acupuncture achieved similar results to those of pharmaceutical drugs for chronic conditions - but without the potential adverse reactions. In his new trial, Dr Lewith tested acupuncture on a small group of arthritis sufferers, each of whom had sessions of real acupuncture, and two dummy versions, which involved using blunt needles that either failed to puncture the skin or retracted like a stage dagger when it touched the skin's surface. Scientists who monitored the participants' brains during treatment discovered that pain-relieving natural opiates were released during both the real and dummy acupuncture sessions, but that only the real acupuncture triggered other brain activities that also helped the patient.

So it seems that acupuncture works at a level that goes beyond the placebo effect, which is more than can be said of pharmaceutical drugs. Dr Lewith has pointed out that the antidepressant Prozac works in 80 per cent of cases - but 70 per cent were because of the patient's expectations, and just 10 per cent could be attributed to a chemical change caused by the drug.
Conventional medicine? It's all placebo, isn't it?


  • Nature, 1 May 2005; doi:10.1038/news050425-12