Acupuncture needles on woman's back

Sham or real, the needles help

The Time Magazine Alternative Medicine article discussed sham versus “verum” or real acupuncture in fair depth.  This has been a difficult issue in acupuncture research since nonspecific needling can have enough effect that statistically it is no different than verum acupuncture.  It is rare that the studies are large enough to tease out this difference.

In this article they cite a German study that that compared two half hour treatment sessions a week for five weeks of 1) verum acupuncture 2) sham (real needles at random spots on the back) and 3) conventional therapy of PT and exercise along with the drugs they were taking. At the end of the 5 weeks, 47.6% of the real acupuncture group experienced significant relief and functionality. 44.2% of the sham group did.  Traditional therapy 27.4%.  So, though acupuncture was clearly helpful, unclear whether we need to really use all the prescribed points we learn.

They cite some studies where sham is every bit as good, and one study where sham was even better. And, of course, the obligatory quote from an acupuncture skeptic who states that “acupuncture is no more effective than placebo.” (I don’t recall any demands for surgical procedures to have a “sham surgical” arm of the study, but I digress.)

They cite, also, some studies where verum acupuncture is clearly better than sham or conventional treatment.  For example for hot flashes in women in menopause with even their blood tests showing a surge in estrogen after acupuncture treatment.  They also cited a study where cocaine addicts responded clearly to real versus sham acupuncture, with 53.8% of patients with “clean” drug screens versus 23.5% for sham, and 9% with no acupuncture at all.