In this pilot study comparing the analgesic effects of three acupuncture modes--manual, electro, and placebo (with Streitberger placebo needles)--in a cohort of healthy subjects, we found that verum acupuncture treatment, but not placebo, lowered pain ratings in response to calibrated noxious thermal stimuli. This finding was mainly the result of highly significant analgesia in 5 of the 11 subjects who completed the 5-session study. Of the 5 responders, 2 responded only to electroacupuncture and 3 only to manual acupuncture, suggesting that acupuncture's analgesic effects on experimental pain may be dependent on both subject and mode. We developed a simple quantitative assessment tool, the Subjective Acupuncture Sensation Scale (SASS), comprised of 9 descriptors and an anxiety measure to study the relationship between the deqi sensation induced by acupuncture and the putative therapeutic effects of acupuncture. The SASS results confirm that the deqi sensation is complex, with all subjects rating multiple descriptors during each mode. We found significant correlations of analgesia with SASS ratings of numbness and soreness, but not with ratings of stabbing, throbbing, tingling, burning, heaviness, fullness, or aching. This suggests that attributes of the deqi sensation may be useful clinical indicators of effective treatment.
Perspective: The results of this study indicate the existence of both individual subject and acupuncture mode variability in the analgesic effects of acupuncture. This suggests that switching acupuncture mode may be a treatment option for unresponsive patients.