Ted Kaptchuk’s first randomized clinical drug trial, All the patients had joined the study hoping to alleviate severe arm pain: carpal tunnel, tendinitis, chronic pain in the elbow, shoulder, and wrist.
In one part of the study, half the subjects received pain-reducing pills; the others were offered acupuncture treatments. The pills his team had given patients were actually made of cornstarch; the acupuncture needles were retractable shams that never pierced the skin. The study was designed to compare two fakes.
In both cases, people began to call in, saying they couldn't get out of bed. The pills were making them sluggish, the needles caused swelling and redness; some patients’ pain ballooned to nightmarish levels. Almost a third of his 270 subjects complained of bad side effects. The side effects were exactly what patients had been warned their treatment might produce. Most of the other patients reported real relief, and those who received acupuncture felt even better than those on the anti-pain pill.