Sham acupuncture may be as efficacious as true acupuncture: a systematic review of clinical trials

J Altern Complement Med. 2009 Mar;15(3):213-6. doi: 10.1089/acm.2008.0356.


Objective: This study sought to determine whether sham acupuncture is as efficacious as true acupuncture, as defined by traditional acupuncture theories.

Methods: A systematic review was conducted of clinical trials that used sham acupuncture controls with needle insertion at wrong points (points not indicated for the condition) or non-points (locations that are not known acupuncture points). This study used a convenience sample of 229 articles resulting from a PubMed search using the keyword "acupuncture" and limited to "clinical trials" published in English in 2005 or 2006. Studies were categorized by use of wrong points versus non-points and the use of normal insertion and stimulation versus superficial insertion or minimal stimulation.

Results: Thirty-eight acupuncture trials were identified. Most studies (22/38 = 58%) found no statistically significant difference in outcomes, and most of these (13/22 = 59%) found that sham acupuncture may be as efficacious as true acupuncture, especially when superficial needling was applied to non-points.

Conclusions: The findings cast doubt on the validity of traditional acupuncture theories about point locations and indications. Scientific rationales for acupuncture trials are needed to define valid controls, and the theoretical basis for traditional acupuncture practice needs to be re-evaluated.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Acupuncture Points
  • Acupuncture Therapy / methods*
  • Clinical Protocols
  • Controlled Clinical Trials as Topic / methods*
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Evidence-Based Medicine*
  • Humans
  • Needles
  • Placebos / therapeutic use*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Research Design*


  • Placebos