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J Pain. 2005 Apr;6(4):237-42.

A controlled trial of placebo versus real acupuncture.

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Center for Orofacial Pain, Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, University of California San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, USA.


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.


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

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