Acupuncture and forgetting about the placebo effect

16 Nov

I’ve written previously about using acupuncture as an example for rational thinking, and last week I was drawn to the topic again by a series of newspaper stories about a study of the value of acupuncture in dealing with breast cancer related fatigue. A huge range of media outlets ran stories based on a paper published in the  Journal of Clinical Oncology on October 29th. The Daily Mail headlined their story ‘Acupuncture can relieve the extreme tiredness suffered by 40% of breast cancer patients”

At face value this study seems interesting, however as soon as you delve a little you find a major issue. The study compares acupuncture treatment with ‘no treatment’, there seems to have been no consideration of the placebo effect. A first sight constructing placebo acupuncture might seem difficult, however ‘sham’ acupuncture needles are available where the needle retracts into the handle rather than penetrating the skin, and studies have been conducted using such ‘sham’ acupuncture placebos.

In discussing drug trials with students they can rapidly see that the placebo effect needs to be considered. After all, no one would consider taking a drug that was no better than placebo. One would want to know that the drug actually ‘worked’. Yet with this acupuncture study we seem to being asked to accept a different standard of ‘proof’ than for more conventional medical treatment.

In addition to a discussion of the placebo effect this story could be used to illustrate a couple of more complex points. The idea that ‘alternative’ medicine should be subject to a different standard of ‘proof’ than ‘conventional’ medicine is an interesting one. Equally, the impact of this story on someone currently suffering from breast cancer related fatigue is also worthy of discussion.

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