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Placebo or not a Placebo? That is the question.

Recently there was an excellent article in the Guardian about further scientific evidence that acupuncture works. It also had a much better pun in its title than my blog post but that is why I am not a journalist. ‘Pains and Needles‘.


As an acupuncturist, you are asked these two main questions at parties.

‘Does acupuncture work?’


I try not to wield my well-honed sarcasm and answer ‘ Actually no it doesn't and then excuse myself in search of some olives, leaving them believing I am a complete charlatan.


The follow-up question (if I have not used the ‘olive exit’) is ‘But is it a placebo?’ and my honest answer to this is ‘Does it actually matter?’


Our minds are incredibly sophisticated, cunning organs and can control everything about us so the power of a placebo makes sense. If you have had a frozen shoulder for six months and tried all of the Western methods and come to me and after some needles, your symptoms resolve then: job done.


Personally, I am a results-based type of patient. No matter the discipline if I improve then I am satisfied. I take a simplistic yet pragmatic view. Often exhaustive attempts for solutions encourage patients to think outside the familiar Western box.


There has long been debate in Western science about the quantifiable proof of the efficacy of Chinese medicine. The challenge to providing acupuncture statistics (other than anecdotal perspective ) is that it doesn’t always run to a specific formula. There is a set- menu of points that can be used on anyone. These are powerful points to provide a strong base for the treatment. I would then add in things to support the individuality of the patient and what is presenting to me in that moment.


This is tricky to test in a random control trial due to the flexibility and adaptation of the points, symptoms, practitioner style, and patient constitution. Whereas if you have tonsillitis (and are not allergic to penicillin) the GP is most likely going to prescribe amoxillician no matter how unique your system is. Results are much easier to measure on a mass market, where everyone is treated in the same way.


After seeing results in the clinic, it is of little surprise that recent studies show strong evidence that acupuncture is not a placebo and in fact works on the central nervous system. Phew. This is encouraging news for my future party conversations and general olive consumption.


Sometimes Chinese medicine is a bit mystical and unfamiliar compared to a Western approach but I firmly believe that treating your whole system stops other issues from emerging. Think of it as ‘bespoke’ versus ‘commercial’. Bespoke is back in vogue.


Cate Blanchett, Lena Dunham, Michael Phelps, and my personal favourite Novak Djokovic are all on board the acupuncture bus (that would be an excellent bus ride). Why don’t you buy a ticket?

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