Thursday, June 17, 2010

Acupuncture's secret revealed?

I've tried acupuncture therapy for myself, and found it to be somewhere between ineffective and mildly annoying. This experience, plus reading several convincing studies finding identical pain reduction effects when acupuncture was compared with sham or placebo manipulations has made me think it likely that acupuncture is in fact a placebo effect. Now Goldman et al. have found a greater than 20-fold increase in adenosine, a nerve modulator with anti-nociceptive (i.e. anti-pain) properties, in tissue around the point where  acupuncture needles are rotated in a mouse's paw. This reduces pain in the paw caused by an injected inflamatory chemical, and the effect is not observed in mice genetically altered to delete the pain nerve adenosine receptors. An adenosine receptor agonist (enhancer) boosts the effectiveness of the acupuncture treatment.

Now, what one needs to see next is experiments with humans in which adenosine release caused by rotating a needle at the classical acupuncture needle points is measured and compared with the release at randomly placed needles.  Also, it would be interesting to see whether other placebo interventions shown to cause endorphin release also caused adenosine release.


  1. Hi Deric,
    While I won't rule it out, it seems unlikely to me that acupuncture is (entirely) placebo in effect. Having had acupuncture prior to knowing anything about what was supposed to change in me, and had those things change, reliably - and that those same changes have been experienced by others from the stimulation of the same points - makes me think there's something more to it...would be interesting to see that research done...but what would it tell us, specifically?

  2. It seems to me that finding measurable physical changes that correlate with acupuncture being effective (at classical acupuncture points) versus ineffective (with randomly placed needles) would move us away from the realm of mysterious 'life forces' and energies and towards a scientific explanation of acupuncture's effectiveness.

  3. Yes, but don't we usually "find what we're looking for," and, particularly, "in the way we look for it?"

    I've seen previous data about electrical conductance of the skin being higher at acupuncture points, and some linkage of that information to the fascial system.

    However, measuring "change" generally, will only say that it is doing "something" (or not). It doesn't tell us specifically what it is doing, or, more importantly, how it is doing it.

    So, what is it that we are looking for in a test of acupuncture? The fact that it does something? It already does "something." What, specifically, does it do, and how? And how do you develop a test to figure that out?

  4. Anonymous10:06 AM

    I have had acupuncture one time BUT it was electro-acupuncture where wires were connected to needles via alligator clips for electrical stimulation. My problem was acute sciatica from a disc injury and it was the only thing that gave me total relief ... but lasted only about 4-5 hours. I don't know if electro-acupuncture count but can assure you that it wasn't "placebo."