"Fake" acupuncture almost as good as real for headaches

22 January 2009


This week we saw the announcement that there will be a UK regulator for alternative and complementary therapies, with the aim of cracking down on so-called "cowboy" therapists. And the debate about complementary and alternative treatments rages, with some people swearing they work, despite a lack of solid scientific evidence, while others say it's all snake oil.

One treatment that has been researched in clinical trials is acupuncture, in which needles are inserted at specific points in the body, which supposedly correspond to lines along which energy - known as qi - flows.  There's little actual anatomical basis to acupuncture, but some trials have shown it can have benefits for relieving pain.

Now a review by Cochrane researchers - a group that analyse the body of scientific evidence about different medical treatments - has shown that acupuncture can be an effective treatment for preventing headaches and migraines, but there's an interesting twist.

The scientists found that faked acupuncture, where the needles are put in incorrectly, are just as effective.

This suggests that the benefits of acupuncture are less likely to be down to specific lines of qi, and more likely to be down to the non-specific effects of sticking needles in someone, and to a powerful placebo effect.

The researchers did two studies - one looking at the research that had been done into acupuncture for mild-to-moderate frequent tension headaches, while the other study looked at migraines. Together, the two analyses included 33 clinical trials, totalling over 6,600 patients.

They found that, overall, eight weeks of acupuncture left patients with fewer migraines than those only given preventative drugs.

But the fake acupuncture procedures were just as effective as real acupuncture. In the case of tension headaches, genuine acupuncture was slightly more effective than fake, but only just.

So acupuncture could be an alternative for people who suffer from tension headaches and migraines, but don't want to take drugs.

It's still not clear if it's the acupuncture itself that's making a difference, or if you actually need to have the needles put in the right place at all.


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