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Background: This paper describes the experiences of 8 licensed acupuncturists in a placebo-controlled randomized clinical trial (RCT). This information is important to the design and conduct of high-quality trials. Methods: We conducted a RCT (N = 135) with a 2-week placebo run-in followed by 4 weeks of twice-weekly treatments comparing genuine to sham acupuncture (using the Streitberger placebo needle) in the treatment of arm pain caused by repetitive use. At the end of this study, we conducted written structured interviews with 8 participating acupuncturists. The acupuncturists were not aware of the study's results at the time of these interviews. The questions focused on their experiences in the study, adherence to study protocols, their thoughts about the technical and ethical issues involved in using a sham needling device, and their expectations of trial outcomes. The questions were motivated by expressions of concerns the acupuncturists raised in feedback groups during the course of the study, and our desire to improve further trials. Results: The acupuncturists differed widely in their comfort levels with the research methods used, their adherence to the study protocol, and their expectations of trial outcomes. Conclusions: We conclude that careful monitoring of acupuncturists, including observation of treatments and frequent meetings to support them throughout the trial, is necessary to maintain a high degree of quality control.
Objective To investigate whether a sham device (a validated sham acupuncture needle) has a greater placebo effect than an inert pill in patients with persistent arm pain. Design A single blind randomised controlled trial created from the two week placebo run-in periods for two nested trials that compared acupuncture and amitriptyline with their respective placebo controls. Comparison of participants who remained on placebo continued beyond the run-in period to the end of the study. Setting Academic medical centre. Participants 270 adults with arm pain due to repetitive use that had lasted at least three months despite treatment and who scored ≥3 on a 10 point pain scale. Interventions Acupuncture with sham device twice a week for six weeks or placebo pill once a day for eight weeks. Main outcomemeasures Arm pain measured on a 10 point pain scale. Secondary outcomes were symptoms measured by the Levine symptom severity scale, function measured by Pransky's upper extremity function scale, and grip strength. Results Pain decreased during the two week placebo run-in period in both the sham device and placebo pill groups, but changes were not different between the groups (−0.14, 95% confidence interval −0.52 to 0.25, P = 0.49). Changes in severity scores for arm symptoms and grip strength were similar between groups, but arm function improved more in the placebo pill group (2.0, 0.06 to 3.92, P = 0.04). Longitudinal regression analyses that followed participants throughout the treatment period showed significantly greater downward slopes per week on the 10 point arm pain scale in the sham device group than in the placebo pill group (−0.33 (−0.40 to −0.26) v −0.15 (−0.21 to −0.09), P = 0.0001) and on the symptom severity scale (−0.07 (−0.09 to −0.05) v −0.05 (−0.06 to −0.03), P = 0.02). Differences were not significant, however, on the function scale or for grip strength. Reported adverse effects were different in the two groups. Conclusions The sham device had greater effects than the placebo pill on self reported pain and severity of symptoms over the entire course of treatment but not during the two week placebo run in. Placebo effects seem to be malleable and depend on the behaviours embedded in medical rituals.