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Is there any evidence for acupuncture being an effective treatment?

I sometimes have back pain and some numbness / pain in one leg. They're nothing to worry about and I usually just ignore them. However, a well-meaning friend offered to give me acupuncture for those conditions and I accepted not really expecting anything to change.

To my surprise, a while after the session was over, the pain was gone for more than one day. I'm curious to know what are the possible ways in which sticking needles into one's body could have such an effect. Surely it doesn't have anything to do with "stagnation of qi", but perhaps pinching yourself makes the body forget about other milder pains? Or maybe it makes the body release some kind of painkiller? Or am I just fooling myself into believing that that's got to work on me because so many other people claim that it really "works"?

  • I think that the question to ask is "did it work better then a placebo would". I think the answer to that would be 'no', so while it might have done something (the placebo effect is a real effect, it does something! so I disagree with @larian-lequella that it is fooling yourself. only in a literal sort of way that your body is fooling you, but not in a conscious way) it is not the specifics of acupuncture that helped.
    – Nanne
    Mar 12 '11 at 7:34

This basic question was asked here before.

I must express pleasure in the fact that you asked if you were fooling yourself (rather your body was doing the fooling of the mind, or as others would more kindly put it, experiencing the placebo effect). That is a very healthy and skeptical attitude to have.

Here is the previous answer reproduced for your convenience (as answered by Fabian):

Acupuncture is based on the belief that diseases are caused by blockages of your qi, which flows in so-called meridians in your body. By sticking needles into those meridians you can manipulate the flow of qi and eliminate the blockages.

The concepts of qi and meridians are unscientific, they date back to a time where there was no scientific method and knowledge of human anatomy was practically nonexistent. There is no evidence that qi and meridians exist at all.

Sticking needles into your body still could have some effect, although it will have nothing to do with your qi. There are tons of clinical studies about acupuncture, but few conclusive results. A major problem is that controlling for the placebo effect is complicated, as people usually notice whether you stick needles into them or not. Some of the newer and better clinical trials used fake acupuncture needles that do not penetrate the skin. Another often used method is to stick the needles outside of the "proper" acupuncture points as a control.

Acupuncture is believed to be helpful in a large variety of conditions, I'll take pain relief as an example as it is somewhat plausible that sticking needles into your skin could have an effect on the perception of pain.

A review from 2009 in BJ concludes:

A small analgesic effect of acupuncture was found, which seems to lack clinical relevance and cannot be clearly distinguished from bias. Whether needling at acupuncture points, or at any site, reduces pain independently of the psychological impact of the treatment ritual is unclear.

My conclusion is that acupuncture is just a particularly effective placebo.

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    The placebo effect is not the same as "fooling yourself". It does actually have an effect. You could use that term, but then it would more be that your body is fooling you, which is closer to the other options in the sentence than to 'fooling youreself'.
    – Nanne
    Mar 12 '11 at 7:31
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    Point taken. I was referring to a more colloquial manner of fooling oneself (as in the body doing the fooling). Perhaps I should reword the comment. Mar 12 '11 at 16:11

It probably works through the release of 'endogenous' (naturally occurring in the body) opiates. Operations are conducted under acupuncture induced analgesia in China in particular, eg Thyroid surgery. It works. But the analgesia can be reversed by the opiate antagonist 'naloxone', strongly suggesting that the analgesia caused by acupuncture is activating naturally occurring opioid receptors in the brain. (if these "opioid receptors in the brain" didn't exist then presumably codeine, morphine or heroin would be inactive.) BTW naloxone also reverses the analgesia induced by hypnosis, which confirms that the 'placebo effect' is indeed more than "just" a psychological effect - it can reproduce just about anything that occurs physiologically! And yes it's doing it psychologically.

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    I'd be interested in a cite for the acupuncture/naloxone effect.
    – Mad Scientist
    Mar 12 '11 at 11:17
  • Wikipedia offers this cite: Sauro, Marie D; Greenberg, Roger P. (Feb 2005), "Endogenous opiates and the placebo effect: A meta-analytic review", Journal of Psychosomatic Research 58 (2): 115–120, PMID 15820838 maccurtain.com/psych/Sadistic%20Ben%20Mark2/… Mar 23 '11 at 11:19

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