BBC News 1 December, 1999

Acupuncture does have real health benefits, two separate studies have found.

German scientists tested the therapy by treating one group of patients with acupuncture and another with a fake procedure designed to simulate its feel.

Those patients who received the real therapy showed much bigger improvements in their health.

The fake therapy was administered using a “placebo” needle which, like a theatrical dagger, retracts into the handle when pressed onto the skin.

The patient feels a pinprick and “sees” the needle being inserted, but there is no real acupuncture going on.

Konrad Streitberger, an anaesthetist at the University of Heidelberg who invented the placebo needle, said: “It helps differentiate the physiological effects of the needle from psychological effects,” he says.

Dr Streitberger’s team, whose research is reported in New Scientist magazine, used the needle on patients with rotator cuff tendinitis, a painful shoulder problem.

Of 52 patients, 25 were given acupuncture and the rest received the placebo.

After eight sessions, the first group showed much bigger improvements.

Dr Streitberger hopes to confirm the effect in trials with patients suffering from other diseases.

Pain relief

Acupuncture has no side effects, and the pain relief it provides can last for months

Huey-Jen Lee

In a separate study, doctors at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey have shown that acupuncture can relieve pain.

The scientists induced pain in 12 subjects by using a filament to touch their upper lips.

They then detected the associated increases in brain activity with a magnetic resonance imaging device.

As the subjects’ pain was relieved with acupuncture needles placed between thumb and forefinger, scans showed activity diminished in up to 70% of the brain.

Images taken of their brains showed the activity diminishing in up to 70%.

Study co-author Huey-Jen Lee said: “So many people with pain, whether from cancer, headache or a chronic, unexplained condition, rely on medications, such as morphine, which can become addicting.

“Acupuncture has no side effects, and other studies have shown the pain relief it provides can last for months.”

The researchers presented their findings to the Radiological Society of North America, meeting in Chicago.

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese art based on the theory that Qi energy flows along meridians in the body, and can be stimulated by inserting fine needles at specific points.

Acupuncture is used to treat asthma, addiction, arthritis, depression, anxiety, blood pressure disorder and problems with the digestive system.

Jonathan Monckton, director of the Research Council for Complementary Medicine, welcomed any research into the effectiveness of complementary therapies.

However, he warned against jumping to the general conclusion that acupuncture was an effective therapy based on narrowly focused research.

He said: “In the East acupuncture is seen as a whole system of healthcare, whereas in the West the focus seems to be on the relief of pain as a way of validating its effectiveness – this could be seen to be rather a restrictive approach.”

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