Doctors in China have been pushing needles into patients’ skin, supposedly to restore the flow of healing “qi energy”, for more than 4,000 years. Sometimes it feels as though researchers in the west have been arguing about the practice for almost as long. After more than 3,000 clinical trials of acupuncture, many scientists are convinced that despite the benefits that patients might think they experience, the whole thing is simply a highly convincing placebo (pdf).
But are the sceptics missing something? A steady trickle of neuroscience studies suggests that relying on patients’ pain ratings in acupuncture trials might be hiding important changes in the brain.