Here is the conclusion quoted from a recent New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) review article on acupuncture for back pain:

As noted above, the most recent wellpowered clinical trials of acupuncture for chronic low back pain showed that sham acupuncture was as effective as real acupuncture. The simplest explanation of such findings is that the specific therapeutic effects of acupuncture, if present, are small, whereas its clinically relevant benefits are mostly attributable to contextual and psychosocial factors, such as patients’ beliefs and expectations, attention from the acupuncturist, and highly focused, spatially directed attention on the part of the patient.

Translation – acupuncture does not work. Why, then, are the same authors in the same paper recommending that acupuncture be used for chronic low back pain? This is the insanity of the bizarro world of CAM (complementary and alternative medicine). Yesterday David covered the same article, which I had also covered on NeuroLogica, but we both thought this issue important enough to document our thoughts and objections on SBM.

Let’s break down their conclusions a bit. They have reviewed the clinical evidence, as I and others have done before, and found that when real acupuncture is compared to various forms of sham acupuncture (the acupuncture version of a placebo) there is no difference. As I have written many times before – it doesn’t matter where you stick the needles, or even if you stick the needles. Reviews have also concluded that there is no evidence for the mere existence of acupuncture points. Since acupuncture consists of sticking needles in acupuncture points, the only reasonable conclusion from this evidence is that there is no specific effect from acupuncture – acupuncture does not work.

The phrase, “contextual and psychosocial factors, such as patients’ beliefs and expectations, attention from the acupuncturist, and highly focused, spatially directed attention on the part of the patient.” is a fancy way of saying “placebo effects.” In other words, there are some non-specific subjective benefits to getting attention from a practitioner. There is this assumption, however, that these benefits are real and worthwhile. However, they are likely to be illusory – an artifact of observation and reporting, not a real improvement in the patient’s condition. In real science-based medicine, that is the underlying assumption – placebo effects are largely illusory – a variable to be controlled for.

But there has been recent controversy over the role of the placebo effect in ethical and evidence-based practice. This is, in my opinion, largely a back door attempt to justify CAM treatments that do not work. The claim is that placebo effects are real and useful. But a systematic review of the placebo effect in clinical trials concluded:

We did not find that placebo interventions have important clinical effects in general. However, in certain settings placebo interventions can influence patient-reported outcomes, especially pain and nausea, though it is difficult to distinguish patient-reported effects of placebo from biased reporting. The effect on pain varied, even among trials with low risk of bias, from negligible to clinically important. Variations in the effect of placebo were partly explained by variations in how trials were conducted and how patients were informed.

In other words – for any objective outcome, there is no important placebo effect. For outcomes that are subjectively reported by patients, there is a highly variable placebo effect. It is plausible that the expectation of benefit could result in the release of dopamine and endorphins and produce a physiological decrease in pain, for example, in a subset of people, and there is some evidence for this. But this is, at best, a transient symptomatic effect – not therapeutic.

Such effects are also non-specific – meaning they do not derive from the intervention itself, but from the therapeutic ritual surrounding the intervention. Even treatments that do not work may therefore provide these non-specific benefits. My opinion is that the non-specific benefits of the ritual of treatment should be combined with an actually effective treatment, not magic pretending to be medicine. There are many reasons for this. One is the ethics of patient autonomy and informed consent – giving a fake treatment to a patient violates the patient’s rights, in my opinion.

Further, there is potential downstream harm from convincing patients that fake magical treatments are effective, because of placebo effects. Then using obscure language to hide the fact that the treatment actually does not work. This distorts the public’s view of medicine, and of what works, and sets them up to be victims of fake treatments when their ailment is not subjective or self-limiting. In other words – refer them to an acupuncturists when they have back pain and they may rely upon acupuncture, or some other non-scientific intervention, when they have a more serious illness.

There is further harm caused by diverting research time, money, and other resources from more fruitful lines of investigation in order to pursue a theory that has no basis in biology. There are thousands of published studies on acupuncture – given the negative results of this research most of this has been a waste of time and resources.

The authors of this article recommend:

He has specifically requested a referral for acupuncture, and we would suggest a course of 10 to 12 treatments over a period of 8 weeks from a licensed acupuncturist or a physician trained in medical acupuncture.

This contradicts their own conclusions. Why is training in acupuncture necessary? That training largely consists of identifying acupuncture points, knowing which points to use on an individual patient, and knowing the technique of needle insertion – but none of these things matter. The sham ritual is all that matters – you can literally fake it and get the same response. I bet a 10 minute video is all that is necessary. In fact I bet even that is not necessary – you could probably fake it well enough to get a maximum placebo effect without any prior demonstration.

What the authors of this article have done is something that is increasingly common in CAM (when it is trying to infiltrate academia and peer-reviewed journals like the NEJM) – reviewing the evidence, admitting that the CAM treatment does not work, then making an elaborate and misleading appeal to placebo effects, and ending with a recommendation to use the treatment that does not work. Specifically, they not only recommend using the treatment, but in its fullest magical form, complete with all the disproven claims (that is what “medical acupuncture” is). It’s a bait and switch con game, nothing more. Come for the placebo effect, then be treated with magical nonsense.

Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society, the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also contributes every Sunday to The Rogues Gallery, the official blog of the SGU.