The impact of placebo, psychopathology, and expectations on the response to acupuncture needling in patients with chronic low back pain

J Pain. 2010 Jun;11(6):555-63. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2009.09.013. Epub 2010 Jan 13.


Comorbid psychopathology is a variable not explored in the acupuncture RCTs that could explain whether subgroups of patients with chronic low back pain have differential responses to acupuncture or placebo treatments. This was a controlled, blinded, crossover trial of verum acupuncture and validated sham acupuncture in 40 CLBP patients, with a Low or High level of psychiatric comorbidity. They completed a 0 to 10 rating scale for pain at the beginning and end of each treatment session, and rated their expectations for change in pain. Verum acupuncture was performed at Large Intestine 4 on the dorsal right hand for 30 minutes by a licensed acupuncturist. Data analysis used percent improvement in pain as the primary outcome for each of the treatment sessions. Both groups (21 Low and 19 High) reported significant analgesia with verum acupuncture needling, mean 33%, P = .9 for difference between groups; and with placebo, 26%, P = .09. In both groups, expectations were only a significant predictor of verum acupuncture response, P = .002, such that those with greater expectations had greater pain relief. Psychiatric comorbidity does not significantly impact acupuncture or placebo acupuncture analgesia in CLBP. It does not affect the positive impact of expectations on reported pain relief from real acupuncture.

Perspective: Psychiatric comorbidity may predict differences between acupuncture and placebo responses, not otherwise seen in the RCTs for low back pain. Using a blinded, crossover design, we report that it does not predict outcome, nor does it seem to modify the effect of expectancy (a known predictor) on acupuncture response.

Trial registration: NCT00307788.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Acupuncture Points
  • Acupuncture Therapy*
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Chronic Disease
  • Comorbidity
  • Cross-Over Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Low Back Pain / epidemiology*
  • Low Back Pain / psychology
  • Low Back Pain / therapy*
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Pain Measurement
  • Placebos
  • Single-Blind Method
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Placebos

Associated data