A controlled trial of placebo versus real acupuncture

J Pain. 2005 Apr;6(4):237-42. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2004.12.009.


We sought to determine whether a novel method of placebo acupuncture can be differentiated by subjects from real acupuncture treatment. A single-blind, randomized, controlled clinical trial with an independent observer was performed. Forty-nine healthy subjects over the age of 18 years were randomly assigned to one of 2 experimental groups: 24 subjects received real acupuncture, and 25 subjects received placebo acupuncture. Placebo acupuncture was performed by administering a blunted acupuncture needle through a foam pad at the Large Intestine 4 acupoint. The blunted needle touched but did not penetrate the skin. Real acupuncture was performed by administering an acupuncture needle through a foam pad at the Large Intestine 4 acupoint. The needle pricked and penetrated the skin to a depth of 10 to 20 mm. A simple questionnaire followed, asking whether the subject believed they received real or placebo acupuncture. Twenty-two (88%) of the 25 subjects who received placebo acupuncture believed they received real acupuncture. Nineteen (79.2%) of the 24 subjects who received real acupuncture correctly determined they received real acupuncture. The Fisher exact test showed an insignificant difference between real and placebo acupuncture treatments (P = .463). Subjects were not able to differentiate between real or placebo acupuncture, thereby validating this novel method of administering placebo acupuncture as a good control for acupuncture-naive patients.

Perspective: The method of placebo acupuncture herein described is a valid control for acupuncture research involving acupuncture-naive patients.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Validation Study

MeSH terms

  • Acupuncture Analgesia / psychology*
  • Adult
  • Control Groups*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Illusions / physiology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Needles
  • Pain / psychology*
  • Pain Management*
  • Pain Measurement / methods
  • Physical Stimulation
  • Placebo Effect
  • Research Design / standards*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires