Is Acupuncture "Only" a Placebo Effect?
What is the placebo effect?
Yes, what really is this placebo? Just consider, this effect says that we humans can get better without any real outside intervention, be it medicine, injections, surgery or whatever. Wow this is an amazing ability, I would say - wouldn't you? Many research studies have been carried out that show that this effect is a genuine human trait. But the effect is not consistent. Otherwise we would not need the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical and health industry. Just get this effect to cure all our health issues and dismantle all industries associated with medicine. No, we cannot call on this ability to cure all our ills, unfortunately. And its effectiveness is so variable and uncertain that we would not want to rely on it much. Is it really this almost totally random phenomena or is there a chance that we can harness its awesome potential?
Lets consider acupuncture
As an acupuncture practitioner for more than fifteen years, I believe that the placebo effect can be utilized in a much more methodical way. The practice of acupuncture is shrouded in mystery because Western medicine have not been able to explain it "scientifically". Yet they cannot deny its powerful ability of relieving symptoms, especially when the patient does not respond to conventional drugs or surgery. So what if acupuncture can call upon and amplify the placebo effect in a more controlled way? I believe that controlling the placebo capability is one of the ways that acupuncture works. It is a system that has been in use for over 2000 years so its methods have undergone refinement for much longer than Western medicine has. And its trials have been carried out in real world situation on a vast scale (consider the population of China alone). As a practitioner, I have been able to help hundreds of people with "intractable" conditions where normal medicine has been ineffective. Of course, conventional medical intervention is still necessary in many cases but there is room for both to cover the complete spectrum of ailments in the modern world.
Beyond the placebo
OK, there are cases where the "placebo effect" cannot explain completely how acupuncture works. Research in acupuncture is almost impossible in a way. This is because the human body is full of channels and points that are outside the accepted official ones used in acupuncture. So in tests where "sham" acupuncture is used to compare with the genuine one, the sham points used might inadvertently be one of these uncharted points that will have an effect on the energy system. Yet these studies have shown that real acupuncture gives better results than "sham" acupuncture. This shows that there is something beyond the placebo effect at work in a real acupuncture treatment. Otherwise both methods will yield similar results. And I suspect that different practitioners will get different results. So there is something happening when having an acupuncture treatment - an additional factor beyond harnessing the placebo ability of the patient. This is clearly seen where treating animals where the "patient" gets better yet is not likely to be affected by any placebo consideration.
But really, most patient's priority is in getting and feeling better, irrespective of whether it is due to the placebo or any other effect at work!