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Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Volume 2011, Article ID 485945, 8 pages
Original Article

Is Sham Laser a Valid Control for Acupuncture Trials?

1Multidisciplinary Pain Center, Department of Anaesthesiology, University of Munich, Pettenkoferstraße 8A, 80336 Munich, Germany
2Department of Pediatrics, Staedtisches Klinikum City of Munich/Harlaching, Germany
3Physical Medicine, Rehabilitation and Prevention, Lindwurmstr, Munich, Germany

Received 23 November 2009; Accepted 18 January 2010

Copyright © 2011 Dominik Irnich et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Methodological problems of acupuncture trials focus on adequate placebo controls. In this trial we evaluated the use of sham laser acupuncture as a control procedure. Thirty-four healthy volunteers received verum laser (invisible infrared laser emission and red light, 45 s and 1 J per point) and sham laser (red light) treatment at three acupuncture points (LI4, LU7 and LR3) in a randomized, double-blinded, cross-over design. The main outcome measure was the ratio of correct to incorrect ratings of treatment immediately after each session. The secondary outcome measure was the occurrence of deqi-like sensations at the acupuncture points and their intensity on a 10-fold visual analog scale (VAS; 10 being the strongest sensible sensation). We pooled the results of three former trials to evaluate the credibility of sham laser acupuncture when compared to needle acupuncture. Fifteen out of 34 (44%) healthy volunteers (age: 28 ± 10.7 years) identified the used laser device after the first session and 14 (41%) after the second session. Hence, both treatments were undistinguishable (P = .26). Deqi-like sensations occurred in 46% of active laser (2.34 VAS) and in 49.0% of sham laser beams (2.49 VAS). The credibility of sham laser was not different from needle acupuncture. Sham laser acupuncture can serve as a valid placebo control in laser acupuncture studies. Due to similar credibility and the lack of sensory input on the peripheral nervous system, sham laser acupuncture can also serve as a sham control for acupuncture trials, in order to evaluate needling effects per se.