In the West, hundreds of randomized controlled trials (RCT) have been performed testing acupuncture. They include two types: those that compare acupuncture to other therapies, usual care or no treatment (pragmatic trials) and those that have placebo controls (efficacy trials). Acupuncture has generally performed well against other therapies or no treatment but until recently the evidence from placebo controlled trials has been considered equivocal or contradictory. A recent series of large RCTs, mostly performed in Germany but also in the US, have included both pragmatic and placebo comparisons. The evidence poises a conundrum for profession of acupuncture. This essay first describes the two types of RCTs used to examine acupuncture and examine the results of two recent large RCTs for chronic low back pain as representative examples of recent large studies. The essay then presents the most common Euro-American acupuncture professions’ interpretation of these results. Western responses have included: 1) methodological weaknesses; 2) inappropriateness of placebo controls; 3) questions as to whether acupuncture placebo controls are “inert;” 4) rejection of evidence-based medicine epistemology; 5) discrepancy between acupuncture performed in RCTs with real world acupuncture; 6) enhanced placebo effects of acupuncture; and 7) needs to re-evaluate acupuncture theory. The authors do not necessarily agree with all of these responses; they are presented in an attempt to foster critical discussion. The paper also looks at recent neuroimaging experiments on acupuncture that may point to some worthwhile new avenues of investigation. Finally, the Euro-American health care policy consequences of these recent RCTs are discussed.
Keywords: acupuncture, sham acupuncture, low back pain, randomized controlled trials, acupuncture neuroimaging