Acupuncture wins favor despite study showing placebo was nearly as effective

ABC News—September 24, 2007

It is one of the oldest of medical procedures: doctors poking needles into specific areas of the body to improve blood flow and reduce pain.

But even today, as acupuncture's popularity grows, no one is certain exactly how it works.

This latest study looked at 1,100 patients being treated for lower back pain. 48 percent of those getting Chinese acupuncture reported significant pain reduction. That's almost double the rate reported by those receiving more traditional physical therapy and pain pills.

But, it didn't matter if doctors were even doing the acupuncture correctly.

As part of the study, some patients got "sham acupuncture." That's where needles are randomly placed without any intended benefit. Of those getting the "sham procedure," 44 percent said they, too, felt much better.

Today's results are likely to fuel the argument that acupuncture is nothing more than a placebo effect -- that often, just thinking a treatment will work is enough to make it work. And some doctors say that's just fine.

"I feel it doesn't matter whether it's a placebo effect or not as long as we can get our patients better. The end result is all we're looking for," said Julie Lin, M.D. of the Integrative Care Center of Hospital for Special Surgery.

It's all Karol Stonger was looking for when she received treatment at the ICC.

"I'm very happy with the acupuncture that I've had so far. And I certainly think it has improved my back," Stonger said.

But it's not just pain.

Some doctors are using acupuncture to improve fertility, treat insomnia and allergies, and reduce nausea during chemotherapy. And because the procedure is so safe and so benign, many doctors are willing to encourage it even while the verdict is still out on how it actually works.

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