Not all placebos are created equal.
Harvard University researchers reported Wednesday that people who received sham acupuncture treatments felt more relief from arm pain than those who took an inert sugar pill.
The different, but positive, responses to faux treatments illustrate that relief may lie in medical rituals as well as in the medicine, said Ted Kaptchuk, associate director of Harvard’s division for research and education in complementary and integrative medical therapies.
In the new research, published in the British Medical Journal, Kaptchuk described what happened when he gave fake acupuncture and inert pills to 270 people suffering from chronic pain of the arm. For two weeks, half of the subjects were given inert pills and half were given sham acupuncture -- poked with needles that retracted rather than penetrating the skin. Both groups improved -- but initially there was no difference in the level of pain they reported.
However, after six additional weeks, patients who received sham acupuncture reported more pain relief than those who received fake pills. During that phase of the study, some subjects received real treatments.
But one finding may suggest that the improvement reported by those who received the phony acupuncture treatments was a matter of perception. Those people showed no measurable difference in grip strength when compared with those who took the sham pills.