Fake acupuncture works

Here's a headline: "Fake Acupuncture Is Still Better than Western Medicine." Uh, I may get in trouble for this post. This AP article reports on a German study where they took patients with back pain and divided them into three groups.

In the largest experiment on acupuncture for back pain to date, more than 1,100 patients were randomly assigned to receive either acupuncture, sham acupuncture or conventional therapy. For the sham acupuncture, needles were inserted, but not as deeply as for the real thing. The sham acupuncture also did not insert needles in traditional acupuncture points on the body and the needles were not manually moved and rotated.

After six months, patients answered questions about pain and functional ability and their scores determined how well each of the therapies worked. In the real acupuncture group, 47 percent of patients improved. In the sham acupuncture group, 44 percent did. In the usual care group, 27 percent got relief.

Now, why did this happen? Could it be that acupuncture is better than "usual care?" If that was the case then why did the fake acupuncture group still score better than the usual care group? Two words: Placebo Effect. Here is how WebMD defines it.
A placebo effect is an improvement in the symptoms of a disease or condition when a person is treated with a drug or other treatment that he or she expects to work, even though the treatment has not been proven effective. When a drug or treatment seems to work for some people but has not been scientifically proven to be any more effective than a "sugar pill" or placebo, it may be said to have a placebo effect.
Getting back to the AP article, it even outlines the bias limitation that this study has, while still trying to persuade you that their theory are still correct (nice try).
Positive expectations the patients held about acupuncture -- or negative expectations about conventional medicine -- also could have led to a placebo effect and explain the findings, [the study co-author] said.

Although the study was not designed to determine how acupuncture works, [the study co-author] said, its findings are in line with a theory that pain messages to the brain can be blocked by competing stimuli.

So, this is another research study in which the results (the facts) did not prove their theory, the most important take away point they want you to know is that acupuncture, whether real or fake, is still better than Western medicine and that insurance companies should pay for it - as exhibited by the last two paragraphs of the article.
Funding came from German health insurance companies, and the findings already have led to more coverage in Germany of acupuncture.

In the United States, some health plans cover acupuncture for some conditions, but may require pre-approval, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. An acupuncture session can cost $45 (euro32) to $100 (euro71).

C'mon, gimme a break! Don't get me wrong, I'm not dissing acupuncture. I think this treatment has value. But to make policy changes based on this bad data? That's irresponsible. Either get better data or just acknowledge your bias toward acupuncture (or against Western medicine), make your policy decision (insurance companies should pay for acupuncture), and move on.

Update (10:32pm 10/26): Here's something interesting. This post got picked up overseas. To see what this post looks like in German, just click here. Enjoy!