Acupuncture found to have actual measurable effect

A team at Heidelberg has conducted the first proper clinical study of acupuncture I’m aware of that demonstrates a measurable benefit:

The scientists examined patients with heart failure who were treated with the conventional medications and were in stable condition. In addition, patients in the acupuncture group were given ten sessions of acupuncture focusing on the acupuncture points which boost general strength according to Traditional Chinese Medicine and are also known to influence the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and inflammation markers. The control group was treated with special placebo needles that simulate a needle prick but do not break the skin. After this therapy, the acupuncture patients could cover a greater walk distance in the time allowed than the placebo patients. They recovered more quickly and tended to feel subjectively less exhausted. However, the measurable work capacity of the heart was unchanged.

We already know from other studies that heart patient’s ability to tolerate exercise is independent of the pump function of the heart. It appears rather that easily becoming fatigued stems primarily from the muscles. Inflammation messengers in the blood are increased in chronic heart failure and make the muscles tired. They activate what are known as ergoreceptors in the muscle that signalize to the body that the muscle cannot sustain the workload. “The blood level of a certain messenger, tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF alpha) actually drops after the real acupuncture treatment. Since TNF alpha leads to a reduction of muscle mass and muscle strength among other things, this would explain the positive effect on skeletal muscle function,” explains Dr. Arnt Kristen, one of the authors of the study.

No word yet on whether acupuncture would have cured Cao Cao’s migraine.

Every time I read a story like this it emerges a week later that the study was funded by a vitamin supplement company, or the study leader has been permanently barred from publishing in their field’s journals. What makes this time different?

The big difference between acupuncture and, say, homeopathy is that acupuncture is actually DOING something, albeit the wrong something for the wrong reasons to treat the wrong symptoms.

I would think we could cal this the “jockey whip effect.” I can ignorantly hypothesize reasons why actually being stabbed with a needle would cause you to walk farther than being placebo pinched. They need to do a test of this particular metric with placebo stabs in the wrong places, that should eliminate the penetration effect on the body.



Penetration effect on the body? You think just being stabbed will make you feel better? That seems odd. They didn’t just walk further. They also felt better afterward. Plus, there was no indication that they were still in pain from the treatment (needles) when they did the tests, was there?

That this study is by a group at the Heidelberg University Hospital. I would be rather shocked if a group at such an institution simply faked their study and lied about their process or results. Moreover, academic research in Germany is usually state-funded and the web page of the research group does not mention any private funding, only a DFG grant.

Houngan and Robert, would you mind reading my quotes if not the whole article? It’s all explained there.

I have now, and I still don’t see where they used actual penetrating needles in placebo. Checkers, I’m not sure what you were highlighting, the “dull” needles were the same ones that “simulated but did not break the skin.”

It’s an interesting article, particularly the anti-inflammatory bit, I’m just getting in my usual shots against the woo-woo portion of acupuncture. That we’ve found shoving pins into a body has an effect isn’t that surprising, but I want someone to demonstrate that it’s the sticking, not the placement (and by extension meridians, Qi, etc.) that matters.

And Robert, I was referring to things like adrenaline production, heart rate, etc. that would all be affected by being needled. The ability to walk farther (and after walking farther, to feel better) aren’t that shocking to me. The only interesting effect mentioned is the receptor drop, although since that’s associated with things like muscle mass where the cause/effect would take some time, I’d have to figure out how long those 10 sessions took. There are a lot of “could be” statements. Could be the antiinflammatory, could be balancing autonomic systems, could be this, could be that.

This quote doesn’t make me very hopeful:

“Most studies on the effectiveness of acupuncture have methodological weaknesses, as there are no placebo controls and the study participants are not ‘blinded’. This means that the patients know which treatment they are given and may therefore have certain expectations,” according to Backs. “In our studies, all patients thought they had received ‘real’ acupuncture.”

When there have been properly blinded studies using real needles in both cases. And there’s a pretty big assumption here:

This is precisely where acupuncture may intervene, by bringing these processes back into balance – it influences the autonomic sympathetic nervous system (excitation), boosts the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation), and also has an anti-inflammatory affect.

It does? When was this determined?


If it makes you feel better, just think of the study as “getting stabbed with needles has actual measurable effect”. Probably the next step is to figure out if the location matters or not. I really don’t think it is obvious that getting stabbed with a needle would help you recover from heart surgery faster.

Short version: My dog was on the verge of being put to sleep due to hip problems and acupuncture fixed what painkillers and steroids couldn’t.

Full story:
I’m usually very skeptical about alternative medicine but I believe acupuncture actually does do something to help the patient. My anecdotal evidence is my dog, Tia. She has a history of knee and hip trouble but seemed to be doing really well with just a daily glucosamine supplement. One day I come home from work and she doesn’t come and greet me. I look around for her and find her laying on her dog bed and she refused to get up. She wagged her tail and was happy to see me, she just wouldn’t get up. I had to help her get up and she could barely walk on her back legs. I took her out and she couldn’t squat to go to the bathroom. She collapsed finally trying to poop.

I took her to the vet and they prescribed painkillers, which didn’t do anything to help. Took her a second time and they prescribed steroids and they sort of improved her situation. I still had to use a towel around her midsection and carry her back half like a suitcase so she could go outside. She couldn’t squat, go up or down stairs, or walk more then a few steps. The vet said the only other treatment to try was acupuncture. That really was the only thing left that might help her. Normally I would have just discounted it but I’ll try almost anything to keep Tia from being put to sleep. Once all the needles were inserted there was a noticeable change in her demeanor. She started panting heavily and she was much more energetic. We had to keep her from moving too much. Once she was finished we put her in the car and I drove her home. When I got home, I grabbed the towel and was about to put it around her stomach to carry her in but she got out on her own and walked herself to the front door, stopping once to gingerly squat and pee in my front yard. She’s been fine ever since. It took a couple days for her to be able to walk normally and take stairs but she’s been good ever since! I have to believe that acupuncture did save her life.

This is fucking hilarious.

I’m really happy that your dog is better, but in this context, that anecdote isn’t really helpful. That kind of miraculous recovery is the exact kind of thing that skeptics can ignore, adn even use as ammunition against the touchy-feely nature of the perception of acupuncture: there’s no currently understandable mechanism by which it could have worked, it isn’t reproducible, and there’s all sorts of response bias.

As far as they’re concerned, you could have just used “prayer” instead of “acupuncture”.

Agreed. Scientifically, it only makes a little sense. The vet explained to me that the needles are supposed to get the nerve pathways firing all at once and that will help facilitate healing in the area the needles are concentrated. But, such a sudden and drastic change has to mean it does SOMETHING to improve health, at least by relieveing pain. Too bad she is a dog and I can’t ask her about what she was feeling.

Yeah, that sounds stupid. But, it wasn’t pain from what I could tell. It was more like a high amount of stimulation. Like she had some caffeine or an adrenaline shot.

I’ll shut up now since I am not explaining myself very well.

This doesn’t really relate to the OP, and I hate “just so” anecdotes as much as the next scientist, but I know for a fact that one particular acupressure technique (no needles, just applied pressure) can work in at least one circumstance for me. There’s a point on the “webbing” between my outstretched index finger and thumb which if squeezed will remove any headache pain within about 5-10 seconds for as long as pressure is applied. If pressure is released the headache slowly comes back over a minute or two. It’s 100% replicable, and I always use it if I don’t have any ibuprofen handy. I was taught this technique by a friend several years ago, who’d passed it along from another etc, so it’s apparently not restricted to myself.

Absolutely classic.

I’m trying to download the original article that ScienceDirect is reporting on, but the DOI isn’t resolving at the moment. I’m sure it will contain some speculation as to the mechanism and it should also include avenues for further research.

I do note that the SD page for this article also includes links to other studies, one of which specifically talks about the efficacy of acupuncture for headaches, and from the title, it seems to show that the location of the needle insertions didn’t matter. Which would be consistent with my own belief: inserting needles anywhere into the body triggers the stress response, and this response leads to an adaptive marshalling of the body’s defences, which include the immune system and muscular repair mechanisms.

I would be willing to hypothesize that there may be areas that lead to an improved response, and perhaps even an optimal one. Maybe centuries of trial and error found a few of those places. Such a hypothesis would certainly require deeper investigation.

I’m not sure what you are suggesting here. I didn’t criticize the article. I was replying to Houngan. I read it. Now that you mention it though, I don’t see how it’s fully addressed, unless the pain of being poked with a needle is the exact same as it actually penetrating. I really don’t know if it is or not. Pain is pretty subjective.

Houngan, I get what you are saying. But that would only matter if the walking was done right after the needles were inserted. The article just says that after this therapy they could do X, Y, and Z. It doesn’t say how long after. Adrenalin affects decrease pretty quickly. How long are the supposed benefits of acupuncture supposed to last?

We’re on the same page, I would need to know timing. The article reads to me like they found a couple of things over chance and they’re now trying to find a mechanism to fit the bill. I say we start selling hedgehogs as service animals, see what happens to world health.


This study used a sample size of 17. BMJ’s content server appears to be down at the moment so I can’t check methods, but determining statistical significance with such a tiny sample is tricky, and even if done correctly it’s problematic. It would be wise to wait for further research confirming this effect before you go pay someone to stick you with needles.