PLoS One. 2014;9(8):e104582 doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0104582. 2014 Aug 07.

Phantom acupuncture: dissociating somatosensory and cognitive/affective components of acupuncture stimulation with a novel form of placebo acupuncture

Lee J, Napadow V, Kim J, Lee S, Choi W, Kaptchuk TJ, Park K.


In a clinical setting, acupuncture treatment consists of multiple components including somatosensory stimulation, treatment context, and attention to needle-based procedures. In order to dissociate somatosensory versus contextual and attentional aspects of acupuncture, we devised a novel form of placebo acupuncture, a visual manipulation dubbed phantom acupuncture, which reproduces the acupuncture needling ritual without somatosensory tactile stimulation. Subjects (N = 20) received both real (REAL) and phantom (PHNT) acupuncture. Subjects were retrospectively classified into two groups based on PHNT credibility (PHNTc, who found phantom acupuncture credible; and PHNTnc, who did not). Autonomic and psychophysical responses were monitored. We found that PHNT can be delivered in a credible manner. Acupuncture needling, a complex, ritualistic somatosensory intervention, induces sympathetic activation (phasic skin conductance [SC] response), which may be specific to the somatosensory component of acupuncture. In contrast, contextual effects, such as needling credibility, are instead associated with a shift toward relative cardiovagal activation (decreased heart rate) during needling and sympathetic inhibition (decreased SC) and parasympathetic activation (decreased pupil size) following acupuncture needling. Visual stimulation characterizing the needling ritual is an important factor for phasic autonomic responses to acupuncture and may undelie the needling orienting response. Our study suggests that phantom acupuncture can be a viable sham control for acupuncture as it completely excludes the somatosensory component of real needling while maintaining the credibility of the acupuncture treatment context in many subjects.

PMID: 25101637