Pain relief from acupuncture is real, Penn study finds

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    Scientists have long puzzled over whether acupuncture relieves pain on its own or if it’s a case of the placebo effect.

    In a new experiment from the University of Pennsylvania, acupuncture reduced pain by about 40 percent for a group of breast cancer patients, even for the women who did not believe it would work.

    “To our surprise, we found actually in the real electro-acupuncture group, the expectation had no influence on outcome at all,” said study author Jun Mao, director of the Integrative Oncology Initiative at the Abramson Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Patients performed equally well whether people believed in acupuncture or not.”

    Patient expectations weren’t always irrelevant, however. When women received simulated acupuncture and believed the treatment would work, it did — even better than the actual needle therapy. But, if they were pessimistic, they reported little to no pain relief.

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    The curious finding, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute Monographs, could lead to a new way of prescribing the alternative medicine.

    “Potentially, we can personalize the delivery of acupuncture based on baseline expectation to optimize pain reduction outcomes in patients,” said Mao.

    Larger trials are still needed, he said, but it’s good news that acupuncture appears to work even for those who doubt it. The traditional Chinese medicine, he added, can be a useful tool for doctors to consider especially because it has fewer side effects than many prescription drugs.

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