German study shows that the placebo effect can be quite strong for people with low back pain.

According to a study conducted by researchers at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany acupuncture, even fake acupuncture, works better than traditional Western medical treatments for people suffering from low back pain. 

Researchers found that half of the patients treated with real acupuncture experienced relief from symptoms that lasted months.  Fake acupuncture also provided this level of relief, outperforming tradition Western treatments where only about 25% of people studied felt better.

Researchers are hypothesizing that perhaps any needle pricks can result in relief from back pain, or that the placebo effect might be the cause.  The media is already reporting that acupuncture is the best treatment for people with low back pain.  Which is to be expected since members of the media are always looking for health products and cures that are the biggest, best, fastest, etc.

Now you back pain sufferers out there, don’t go and start sticking pins into your back. My bet is that the placebo effect is responsible for people feeling better from the acupuncture treatments, both real and fake.  I don’t have anything against acupuncture, but it is probable that both the negative impressions many people have about traditional medicine combined with the positive expectations held about acupuncture are the reason this treatment provided relief.

When you realize that in the real acupuncture group, 47 percent of the patients felt relief and 44 percent felt relief in the fake acupuncture- only a 3 percent difference – it’s hard to make the claim that acupuncture itself was responsible for these improvements.  Only 27 percent of the people in the traditional treatment group felt better as a result of a variety of treatments, including painkillers, injections, physical therapy, massage and heat therapy.  All treatment groups experienced 10, 30-minute sessions.

This study shows how powerful the mind is, in that so many people felt basically the same amount of relief from a sham treatment as from the real thing, and that this sham treatment vastly outperformed all forms of traditional medicine. A statistics expert would be able to shed some light – and analysis – on this close call between real and sham acupuncture, but my bet is that the placebo effect might be at work here.

Before people start jumping on the acupuncture bandwagon, stop and think for a minute.  Why spend all that money and inconvenience on going to an acupuncturist when it’s probable that you could do just as well for yourself with some push pins?  A three-percent  difference? And while it would be nice to find that acupuncture is a slam-dunk cure for those looking for relief from back pain, I think we can chalk up these results to the power of positive thinking, or wishful thinking.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.


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