Acupuncture Shown Ineffective in Breast Cancer Study

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

LLH network pressby Benjamin Radford


A new study published in the journal Cancer finds that acupuncture is ineffective in treating hot flashes, joint pain, and other menopausal symptoms.

Forty-seven female breast cancer patients (men can and do get breast cancer) were treated with eight weeks of either real or fake acupuncture as a way to reduce the side effects of an anti-cancer medication. Twenty-three patients were given real acupuncture (placing needles on carefully-selected points on the body), and 24 were given sham acupuncture, where needles were placed (but not actually inserted into) the skin at random locations.

The treatment’s effectiveness was determined by patient-reported symptoms, and the study was double-blinded (meaning that neither the patients nor the researchers knew who got the real acupuncture treatment).

Both the real and fake acupuncture improved the patient’s symptoms, which came as no surprise to the researchers because of the placebo effect. When a patient is given a treatment and told that it will help him or her, often it will — even if there’s no active ingredient. A person’s expectation that they will feel better can make them feel better subjectively.

One problem with trying to test acupuncture’s effectiveness apart from the placebo effect lies with the treatment itself. If doctors are testing a drug, they can make pills that look and taste identical, both with and without active ingredients. Because the patient doesn’t know if they are taking a placebo or not, the difference in outcomes can be attributed to the medicine. But in the case of acupuncture, it’s very difficult to fool someone into thinking they’re not being poked with needles, when they can see or feel them. This is why the study required sham acupuncture.

The study, led by Dr. Ting Bao of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, found no difference in symptom relief between the two treatments.

The fact that real and fake acupuncture treatments were indistinguishable demonstrates that the acupuncture is ineffective. After all, the entire premise of acupuncture is that the needles must be placed at very specific places in the body in order to stimulate and channel alleged bodily energy fields (often called “chi” or “qi” — which, it should be noted, are unknown to science).

In other words, if acupuncture had validity, merely poking random places in the body with acupuncture needles, pencils, toothpicks, or anything else should have no effect.

This is only the latest of many well-controlled, peer-reviewed scientific studies that cast doubt on the efficacy of acupuncture; a study examining the value of acupuncture on seasonal allergy symptoms published in the February 2013 journal Annals of Internal Medicine found that “no effect of active treatment on individual symptom severity could be shown.”

The best evidence is that there is no medical benefit to acupuncture, and in fact there is a small but real risk of harm: A 2010 study published in the British Medical Journal found that dirty acupuncture needles have caused dozens of serious bacterial infections, including hepatitis B and C.

The study, “Patient-reported outcomes in women with breast cancer enrolled in a dual-center, double-blind, randomized controlled trial assessing the effect of acupuncture in reducing aromatase inhibitor-induced musculoskeletal symptoms,” appeared in the December issue of the journal Cancer.