Is acupuncture like homeopathy a placebo treatment? That appears to be the conclusion of Linköping University physiotherapist Anna Enblom, who reports on studies which show that acupuncture is just as effective without needles.
Enblom’s experiments involved cancer patients suffering from nausea induced by radiotherapy. One group received conventional medical treatment, and only a quarter of the subjects experienced relief from their discomfort. In another study of 215 patients, 109 received traditional acupuncture, in which the needles are twisted into the skin. The other 106 were given a simulated acupuncture treatment with blunt, telescopic needles that merely touched the skin.
Some ninety-five percent of the patients in both groups said that their treatment helped relieve feelings of nausea. Sixty-seven percent reported other effects such as improved sleep, brighter mood and reduced pain.
The final study showed that those patients who received acupuncture – whether traditional or simulated – felt considerably better than the group which received conventional medical treatment alone. No difference was found between the two acupuncture groups.
After all that has been claimed for the complex system of acupuncture, with its “meridians” and “qi”, or vital energy, it would seem that the positive effects of this alternative therapy are due not to the insertion of needles into the skin at specific points. They are instead the psychosomatic result of increased sympathetic care and attention. A good bedside manner and a spot of gentle prodding will work just as well as being stabbed with fine needles.
It may be a convincing empirical test of acupuncture, but I suspect that the quasi-professional practice of perforating the human body for supposed therapeutic gain will not go away anytime soon. Just like homeopathy, in fact.