Symptoms such as pain (along with fatigue, nausea and itch) are notoriously difficult for different people to rate in a consistent manner. Conventional wisdom says that these kinds of symptoms are improved by placebo, but what about improvements in the body’s physiology? For instance, in a recent study that assigned an albuterol inhaler for asthma to some patients and sham acupuncture to others, patients reported both as effective. But objective physiological measures demonstrated significant improvement only for albuterol. It’s clear that in evaluations of acupuncture, research should explicitly hunt for potential physiological improvements, in addition to patient reports. While most chronic-pain disorders lack such established, objective outcomes of disease, this is not true for carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), a neuropathic pain disorder that can be validated by measuring electrical conduction across the median nerve, which passes through the wrist. Interestingly, the slowing of nerve conduction at the wrist does not occur in isolation – it’s not just the nerve in the wrist that’s affected in CTS. My own department’s research and others’ has clearly demonstrated that the brain, and particularly a part of the brain called the primary somatosensory cortex (S1), is re-mapped by CTS. Specifically, in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans, the representation of fingers innervated by the median nerve are blurred in S1. We then showed that both real and placebo acupuncture improved CTS symptoms. Does this mean that acupuncture is a placebo?
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