A report from The Guardian discussing recent findings showing that acupuncture works in a way distinct from any placebo.
“Placebo acupuncture can ease short-term pain but the real thing might help to reverse the underlying pathology of a disease.”
“I was completely floored,” he says. Whatever the acupuncture was doing, it wasn’t working as a placebo.”
“It was the first hint, says Harris, that the central tenet of placebo-controlled trials – that placebo effects are always the same regardless of whether patients receive a real or fake treatment – might be wrong. “It has been assumed by the pain community that the placebo effect should be embedded in the active treatment group,” he says. “But it looks like actually placebos just do something completely different from the actual treatment … Both things are not necessarily operating together.”
Harris thinks that rather than representing a drop in endorphin levels, his results reveal an increase in the overall number of receptors. Other researchers have found that stimulating isolated neurons (nerve cells) directly causes extra opioid receptors to be expressed on the surface of those cells. Harris speculates that stimulating patients’ nerves with acupuncture needles might have a similar effect.
If he’s right, it’s tantalising evidence that while placebo acupuncture eases short-term symptoms by triggering pain-relieving endorphins, the real thing might actually help to reverse the underlying pathology of a disease. For example, fibromyalgia patients have fewer opioid receptors than healthy volunteers, leaving them less responsive to endorphins and overly sensitive to pain, but in Harris’s study, acupuncture “seemed to normalise the values back to healthy control levels,” he says. The larger that change, the more patients’ pain fell.”