Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Evidence for Acupuncture: What Do Scientific Studies Show?

By Harriet Hall

Advocates of acupuncture claim that it has been proven effective by scientific studies. Critics claim that it is only a placebo. They can’t both be right.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

It is often stated that acupuncture has been scientifically validated, but the truth is more complicated. Research on acupuncture is inherently problematic. The practice of acupuncture is not standardised, and some studies of “acupuncture” are actually of electro-acupuncture, ear acupuncture or other variants.

It’s impossible to do double-blind studies. The best studies use a retractable needle in a sheath so the patient can’t tell whether the skin has been penetrated or only touched by the needle.

It’s easy to find studies to support a belief in acupuncture, but it’s even easier to find studies showing it doesn’t work. The highest quality studies have shown that it doesn’t matter where you insert the needles or whether the skin is penetrated or merely touched with a needle or even a toothpick (

Two things that do matter are the patient’s beliefs and the acupuncturist’s behaviour.

Authors, editors and journalists can put a spin on study results to match their preconceived opinions. For example, in 2011 a major study in the British Journal of General Practice made conclusions that directly contradicted the data. It claimed there were benefits from acupuncture despite showing that needles are ineffective and that any placebo effects are...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.