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Tara Parker-Pope has an interesting article in the New York Times about a recent study on acupuncture for pain relief, and more generally about the difficulties in testing acupuncture (and other forms of “traditional” or “integrative” medicine) using standard Western research methods.
The study tested acupuncture versus a sham treatment (that also involved needles, but inserted in the “wrong” places and not as deeply) in 455 patients suffering from knee arthritis. Both groups experienced relief — their pain decreased by one point on a scale of 1 to 7 compared to controls who received no treatment at all. This is consistent with a series of earlier studies suggesting that “inserting needles in or around an area of pain may have caused a ‘super placebo’ effect, touching off a series of reactions that changed the way the body experienced pain.”
The NYT article is worth reading for the discussion of what can and can’t be tested with traditional blinded clinical trials. And then there’s the even harder question: if the effects of acupuncture are essentially a placebo, but a powerful one, then what do we do? After all, the results — pain relief — are surely more important than the mechanism. But what if we establish once and for all that it’s a placebo. Does that mean its effectiveness will disappear? Is it better to remain ignorant so that treatments like acupuncture will work?