Photo of a patient receiving acupuncture
New evidence for the pain relieving power of acupuncture is "robust” and "clinically significant"

Acupuncture provides “significant” pain relief, say scientists

11 September, 2012

Natural Health News — A new study offers ‘robust’ proof that acupuncture provides significant pain relief for a number of different conditions.

Researchers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City went back to basics, acquiring the acquire the original raw data for 29 high quality acupuncture studies involving nearly 18,000 people.

Criteria for included trials required pain of at least a month’s duration, with pain levels being assessed at least a month after acupuncture treatment began.

The results show that compared with ‘sham’ acupuncture where needles (or sometimes just pressure) are applied on non-active points on the body, back and neck pain was 23% less with genuine acupuncture, 16% less for osteoarthritis sufferers and 15% less for those with chronic headaches.

When the authors compared acupuncture with conventional care (which included analgesics and/or exercise and physical therapy programmes) the results were even better. Back neck pain was 55% reduced; for osteoarthritis pain was 57% less and for headache the figure was 46%.

So why aren’t more doctors referring to acupuncturists?

The results are published in Archives of Internal Medicine a sister publication of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). According to the authors these findings should be considered “both clinically and scientifically important.”

Acupuncture is recognised as having certain physiologic effects that can contribute to pain relief, but Western doctors have failed to identify a plausible mechanism (as they understand it) that could lead to long-term benefits for chronic pain. This is one reason why this form of treatment remains, in the authors words, “highly controversial”.

They noted that many clinicians would be unwilling to refer a patient for acupuncture if they believed that its benefits derived only from the nonspecific belief on the part of the patient that the treatment would help.

Time to focus on what works

But the finding that true acupuncture had significantly greater effects than the sham procedure indicates that the effects of the procedure do extend beyond placebo, they observed.

This is “of major importance for clinical practice,” meaning that acupuncture should be considered “a reasonable referral option for patients with chronic pain,” they stated.

In an invited commentary accompanying the meta-analysis, Andrew L. Avins, MD, of Kaiser-Permanente in Oakland, Calif., argues that

“At the end of the day, our patients seek our help to feel better and lead longer and more enjoyable lives. It’s ideal to understand the mechanism of action, which carries the potential for developing more and better interventions. But the ultimate questions is: does this intervention work (or, more completely, do its benefits outweigh its risks and justify its costs)?”

He concludes: “At least in the case of acupuncture, [the researchers] have provided some robust evidence that acupuncture seems to provide modest benefits over usual care for patients with diverse sources of chronic pain. Perhaps a more productive strategy at this point would be to provide whatever benefits we can for our patients, while we continue to explore more carefully all mechanisms of healing”.