Alternative Medicine

Does acupuncture work?

The answer is likely yes, but the result may be simply due to a placebo effect, albeit a strong one.

A new analysis has found that both real and sham acupuncture treatments may help alleviate side effects of drugs commonly used to treat breast cancer.

Breast cancer patients who take a type of drug called an aromatase inhibitor (which inhibits the enzyme that produces estrogen in postmenopausal women) often experience side effects, including joint/muscle pain and stiffness, and menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes. To see if acupuncture could help alleviate patients’ symptoms, Ting Bao MD, DAMBA, MS, of the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center in Baltimore, and her colleagues recruited 47 breast cancer survivors taking aromatase inhibitors and suffering from joint/muscle discomfort to participate in a clinical trial. About half of the patients received eight weekly acupuncture treatments, and the other half received a kind of fake (or “sham”) acupuncture that involved non-penetrating retractable needles placed in sham acupoints (non-acupuncture points).

Both groups experienced lessening of their symptoms, especially hot flashes, but there was little difference in benefits between the real acupuncture and the sham acupuncture.

In other words, the placebo effect is real and strong. Acupuncture seems to “work” even though skeptics may still be, well, skeptical.



  1. The correct conclusion would be that Acupuncture DOES NOT work.

    However, TLC, compassion and kindness do and do so strongly.

  2. No, the study shows conclusively that acupuncture does NOT work. However, it does show that the placebo effect is real. The FDA will not approve a drug if it’s no better than a placebo, and acupuncture would be no different. You are doing a disservice to your readers by implying that acupuncture is effective. It’s not. Take a sugar pill, get a massage, whatever. The needles are irrelevant (obviously, as the study showed).

    Also, measuring pain is subjective as are the ways individuals cope with pain, so frankly, I don’t think this was a very good test on whether acupuncture works. Since the placebo effect won’t stop disease progression, then when acupuncture stops or slows the progression of disease we’d have something to talk about.

    Skeptical? Perhaps. But all that means is that evidence is needed. The opposite, I would say, is gullibility. The acupuncture community has spun a study showing conclusively that acupuncture is not effective into a story that it is. And for whatever reason, you’ve decided to pass along the urban legend.

  3. In the absence of a control group receiving nothing, even placebo effects can’t be claimed… the patients may have improved without being poked with needles – by an acupuncturist or otherwise.

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