What makes ‘fake’ acupuncture work? A few years ago, Harvard professor Ted Kaptchuk carried out an experiment to study the relative impact of acupuncture and analgesics on the experience of pain. To give the study more breadth, he added a placebo to test against the analgesic, and built fake acupuncture needles that looked and felt like real ones but did not pierce the skin beyond the ‘prick’ sensation. The effects of these four treatments were tested on 270 adults.
The results were surprising. Whilst they all relieved pain amongst the participants, the fake acupuncture was significantly more effective than the placebo. Kaptchuk speculated that the impact of ritual and therapeutic care might have prompted the body’s natural pain relieving processes.
The key here is the interaction of mind and body. The brain is the hub for those processes that carry out highly complex procedures for pain relief and resistance to disease. This brain/body unity is thus the primary agent of healing. Doctors and therapists are there to give it a helping hand. Placebo studies suggest that attention to the mind is substantially complementary to the consumption of effective drugs.
Those who are disillusioned with contemporary medicine look for ‘natural’ ways to treat their ailments. There are claims made about the efficacy of homeopathic pills, dietary regimes and eastern therapies, but these lack much basis in science. Curiosity demands that we try to explain why something seems to work. None of us appreciates a vacuum of uncertainty. But how do you explain the effect of fake acupuncture? It has little to do with the eastern metaphysical assumptions about the flow of ‘qi’ inherent in traditional acupuncture practice.
The underlying science of healing may still be poorly understood because of its complexity and uncertainty, but we are gradually making more sense of it. Perhaps in focusing on prompting the self-healing properties of the body, we might at least find more common ground between medical science and healing therapies.
If you are interested in this subject, then why not try the Harvard website for its placebo studies: http://programinplacebostudies.org
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