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Does Acupuncture for Obesity Work?

This week’s issue of Newsweek magazine, features an interesting article by Sharon Begley describing the power of placebo. The article mentions a study by Daniel Cherkin of Group Health Center for Health Studies (Seattle, WA, USA), just published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, which randomised 638 patients with lower-back pain to individualized acupuncture, standardized acupuncture, simulated acupuncture, or usual care. Ten treatments were provided over 7 weeks by experienced acupuncturists.

Remarkably, both the participants receiving real or simulated acupuncture did better than those receiving usual care.

Thus, although acupuncture was found effective for chronic low back pain, tailoring needling sites to each patient or even penetration of the skin appear to be unimportant in eliciting therapeutic benefits.

This finding suggests that the “placebo effect” of acupuncture (whether real or sham) is more powerful than conventional treatment and certainly raises doubts about the supposed mechanism of action of acupuncture. After all if the success of acupuncture for back pain has nothing to do with actually using the right points or even using real needles (tooth picks were used for some of the sham treatments), then one must wonder about how important the placebo effect of this treatment really is.

As students of obesity are well aware, acupuncture has also been suggested as a treatment for obesity. This was addressed in a randomised controlled trial just published this month in the International Journal of Obesity.

In this small but carefully conducted study, Nourshahi and colleagues from the Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran, Iran, randomised 27 obese women to 3 groups receiving diet and exercise with or without acupuncture for 8 weeks or to no intervention at all. Both diet and exercise groups lost the same amount of weight, with no indication of any additional benefit of acupuncture.

So apparently the “placebo effect” of acupuncture that works for back pain does not work for weight loss. But even if the acupuncture patients had lost more weight, in light of the back pain study, I’d be wondering about the mechanism of this effect.

Truly placebo effects never fails to intrigue me – to find out how little we know about how placebos actually work (and believe me, there is more science around this than you may suspect), I strongly recommend Begley’s article in Newsweek!

New Orleans, LA


  1. I am 50 yrs old, mother of 4 young adults. I am in my perimenopausal period, experiencing all symptoms of perimenopause.

    I am very much interested in acupuncture for that purpose including anti-aging and weight loss. I stopped smoking for 8 months now and gained 15 pounds. I am a little bit heavy ever since but heavier now due to the weight gain. I stand 5’4′ and weight 140 lbs, 64 kilos. My ideal weight is 120 lbs.

    I want to age gracefully and beautifully and be an inspiration to aging women who neglects their looks and body. I want to inspire the younger women by showing them that aging can be beautiful and sexy, too. We are stewards of God’s beautiful creation and it is our duty to maintain that beauty as our service to God to benefit others. It is always better to continuously aspire to inspire others until we expire.

    I hope you could help me on these concerns.

    Thank you.

    Sincerely hoping,
    Besi Calupitan
    Mandaluyong , Philippines
    09053186133 02-5314109

    Post a Reply
    • There are three ways that acupuncture is known to reduce pain perception, involving blood flow, nerve signals and the relief of natural pain-killers. I don’t know anything about meridians and find it hard to relate to notions of energy flow and qui, but the scientific explanations do make sense to me. For a simple break-down of the three explanations, I suggest the following link:

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  2. Anything that promotes a healthy lifestyle is always beneficial. If taking the time and expense to try acupuncture actually makes you feel better then why not try it. As you have said the placebo effect can produce amazing results. We have good information here

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