Why There is No Such Thing as Sham Acupuncture

I get really annoyed when I'm reading the results of a scientific study about the effectiveness of acupuncture, and the author concludes that actual acupuncture was "not significantly more effective than sham acupuncture." What they seem to be saying is that acupuncture is not effective at treating X condition. What they are actual discovering is that needle insertion almost anywhere in the body will have an effect on the body's condition, often providing relief from X condition.

I like this part. As Dr. Kwon always told us in Point Location class, you can still help the patient even if you don't stick the needle in the exact acupoint. This realization saved my sanity on more than one occasion when trying to palpate and count thoracic vertebrae to locate the oh-so-important points of the Governing Vessel running up the spinal column. It's supposed to be located at T6, but T7 will be good enough? Awesome. Thank you for your flexibility, ancient wisdom.

So, back to the studies that drive me nuts. Here's how they commonly shake out:

Exactly 100 patients were studied for chronic knee pain, with 25 receiving no treatment, 50 receiving actual acupuncture (inserting needles at specifically proscribed points), and 25 receiving sham acupuncture (inserting needles randomly in the body). Guess what? The patients receiving no treatment did not experience improvement. The patients receiving actual acupuncture reported a 50% improvement, and those receiving sham acupuncture reported a 45% improvement.

I call that good news. The study concludes, instead, that actual acupuncture is not significantly more effective than sham acupuncture at treating knee pain. Wrong. What they actually did is prove Dr. Kwon right -- not that he needs any additional validation, seriously -- that even when needles are inserted at the "incorrect" location, acupuncture still has therapeutic benefits for the patient. Is the goal of an acupuncture treatment for knee pain simply to eliminate the knee pain? Not exactly.

Any time acupuncture happens, that patient's body experiences a shift in energy. We can usually feel a difference in the person's pulse after treatment, compared to before. The qi (energy) has moved, and in western terms, circulation usually improves. Sure, the knee pain is improved, but the patient might also sleep better than usual that night, awake with more energy than usual the next day, or even notice that a new head cold has resolved overnight.

Were these other effects coincidental? Maybe, but probably not. Any acupuncture is better than no acupuncture, and the results of studies comparing no treatment, sham acupuncture, and actual acupuncture will often reveal this truth. In fact, this little "secret" is why I'm not against other practitioners doing acupuncture on patients. We've all heard the buzzword "dry needling," which is when say, your physical therapist needles your arm when your elbow isn't healing as nicely as you'd like. I know several chiropractors who have completed the 100-hour certification in acupuncture, and they can often be seen sticking some needles into a sore back muscle.

Some acupuncturists are completely against this concept of non-acupuncturists needling patients, but I'm pretty much OK with it. I know the patient is probably receiving some benefit regardless of whether or not the needle goes in at an exact acupoints. What's important to me is that the patient is aware that dry needling or someone sticking some needles in where it hurts is not all that acupuncture has to offer. Those techniques have benefits, but not the full array of benefits that needling specific acupoints on specific meridians can produce.

So, if you know someone who's been needled before and didn't experience a great symptom reduction, it's still worth their time to try acupuncture from an acupuncturist. Crazy, I know. It's not that other providers are doing anything wrong; it's just that they aren't receiving the more complete system of treatment via acupuncture that we acupuncture students use.