Needle cure effect 'is not all in the mind'
By Catriona Davies
Last Updated: 12:30am BST 02/05/2005
Acupuncture has a genuine ability to relieve pain, scientists have found.
Many scientists and doctors had believed that any benefit from acupuncture was purely psychological because patients expected an improvement in their health.
Acupuncture has been gaining popularity in Britain but still divides medical opinion
Now a study has found that the brain responses to real acupuncture are different from those from a placebo.
Acupuncture, an ancient Chinese treatment which involves sticking needles in the skin, has been gaining popularity in Britain but still divides medical opinion.
Dr George Lewith, who led a team of researchers at Southampton University and University College London, said acupuncture showed similar results to drug treatments for other chronic benign conditions.
Using prozac to treat depression, for example, was successful in 80 per cent of patients prescribed the drug. Dr Lewith said in most cases, the improvement was purely that the patient expected improvement. But in 10 per cent, the improvement came from real treatment beyond that of a placebo.
Clinical trials of acupuncture showed similar results.
In a study published today in the journal Nature, Dr Lewith's team gave each of 14 patients with arthritis in their thumbs three different treatments in a random order.
Patients received real acupuncture, treatment with "stage dagger" needles which retracted into their handle rather than penetrating skin, or treatment with blunt needles which did not penetrate patients' skin.
Scientists found activity in different brain areas for each treatments. Both the real and placebo treatments triggered activity in the brain known to produce natural opiates, substances that relieve pain.
However, the real treatment also triggered activity in an area of the brain which the placebo did not.