One of the failings I see in many acupuncture studies is that the “sham” acupuncture is too close to real acupuncture treatment. Often in such studies the outcomes reflect this similarity showing that both placebo and treatment groups produce similar results.
Today I stumbled across a study from September of this year exploring the difference in the pain reducing mechanisms of both sham and real acupuncture. This research could help inform future acupuncture research methods, lead to more large scale studies into the method of action found in this study, and shed light on previous confusing or conflicting result data.
The researchers performed eight treatment sessions over a four week period on 20 female fibromyalgia patients. PET scans were used after the first treatment and again after four weeks. Both sham and real acupuncture groups reported similar reductions in pain over time; however, the sham group reductions were more consistent with those seen in general placebo groups, while the true acupuncture group showed more significant clinical pain reduction. The scans showed that real acupuncture increased the opiod (the body’s inherent pain killing neurotransmitter) binding potential of the mu-opiod receptors in several key areas of the brain. The sham acupuncture actually showed a decrease in that potential. The NCCAM (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine) stated in their review of the study that this would indicate that true acupuncture increases the brain’s ability to effectively use opiods while the sham acupuncture helps signal the brain to simply make more opiods.
The study abstract can be found Here. The NCCAM review can be found Here.