For clinical trials of acupuncture, it would be desirable to have a sham procedure that is indistinguishable from the real treatment, yet inactive. A sham needle has been designed which telescopes instead of penetrating the skin. The Park Sham Device involves an improved method of supporting the sham needle and requires validation. The objective of these studies was to test whether the sham procedure using the new device was 1) indistinguishable from the same procedure using real needles in acupuncture naïve subjects, and 2) inactive, where the specific needle sensation (de qi) is taken as a surrogate measure of activity. The studies were designed as subject and assessor blind, randomised controlled trials. Study 1) included 58 patients enrolled in a clinical trial of acupuncture for acute stroke. Study 2) included 63 healthy, acupuncture naïve, adult volunteers. The interventions used were real or sham acupuncture using the Park Sham Device. Study 1) was set in a district general hospital, and study 2) in a university laboratory. The outcome measure in study 1) was the form of treatment that patients believed they had received. In study 2) the outcome measure was experience of de qi, as judged by three acupuncture experts. No patient in either group(study 1) believed he or she had been treated with the sham needle. In 40 volunteers (study 2) for whom experts achieved consensus, the relative risk of experiencing de qi with real acupuncture to that with sham acupuncture was 15.38 (95% CI 2.26 to 104.86). The inter-rater reliability of all 13 experts (study 2), calculated from their judgements on 10 subjects selected by randomisation, was 0.52 (95% CI 0.19 to 0.61). In conclusion, the results suggest that the procedure using the new device is indistinguishable from the same procedure using real needles in acupuncture naïve subjects, and is inactive, where the specific needle sensation (de qi) is taken as a surrogate measure of activity. It is therefore a valid control for acupuncture trials. The findings also lend support to the existence of de qi, a major concept underlying traditional Chinese acupuncture.
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