Is Acupuncture a Placebo?

Is Acupuncture a Placebo?

By: Barbara Gruszka

You may have seen the Grey’s Anatomy episode where Dr. Meredith Grey ruins Dr. Dereck Shepard’s Alzheimer disease trial with the placebo drugs by interfering with the randomization of the placebo and the experimental drugs.[1] These “placebo trials” are not at all a Hollywood dramatization of the real world- the placebo effect is used to test various kinds of medications and surgical operations to see how patients react psychologically to the treatment.

What is the Placebo Effect?

A placebo is an inactive treatment, much like a “sugar pill”, that does not contain any active substance or ingredient.[2] In simpler terms, a placebo is not a medication. A placebo can be administered in many forms: pill, injection, or surgical procedure.

The placebo effect, on the other hand, is the psychological belief that the “treatment” administered is working for the greater good of the patient. The subject of the treatment feels that the placebo is working, and the medical condition is resolved even upon application of an inactive, or fake, treatment. Some medical studies require a double-blind control placebo, where the patient does not know whether they are receiving an active or inactive treatment, and the doctor does not know which is administered. This way, the results are reported without any bias and the full effect of the placebo versus that of the drug being tested can be measured.

As always, there may be a negative result that can be experienced even when receiving the inactive treatment. In this case, the placebo is a nocebo, and the patient experiences negative symptoms.[3]

Acupuncture and Theoretical Placebo

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese practice of inserting needles in specific points around the body called “acupoints”.[4] These points are believed to influence certain parts of the body through a natural flow of energy, known as chi.[5]

While there have been many studies conducted to test the effectiveness of acupuncture, there have been no real conclusive results. In fact, some studies run by Harvard professor Ted Kaptchuk have examined the placebo effect in the context of acupuncture, where retractable needles are “inserted” into the test subject and the patient is observed for any medical changes or symptoms.[6] Ironically enough, the test subjects of the placebo experiment noted negative results after the placebo acupuncture.

With this in mind, could the idea of receiving  acupuncture treatment trick the mind into believing that certain parts of the body are healing? “Tricking” the mind through acupuncture, to many a well-accepted medical practice, could deliver an effect similar to a placebo treatment and lead one to believe that he or she is healed. Researchers looking to find more about the placebo effect, like Ted Kaptchuk, look to find how the stimulation of placebo treatments affects the brain and how the brain can control our body’s mechanisms, as if to allow the brain to function as its own treatment. [7] Scientists like Kaptchuk hope to uncover the specific neural pathways and encoding that produce the placebo effect: in other words, is “feeling better” after a treatment linked with specific activity in a brain region?

[1] “Grey’s Anatomy” (April 28, 2011). ABC Episode: “It’s a Long Way Back”







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