Acupuncture is an effective treatment for chronic pain and provides more pain relief than some traditional therapies, according to a new study by researchers at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
In an analysis of 29 high-quality controlled studies in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden and Spain, researchers found that patients with osteoarthritis, headache, back pain and neck pain showed a modest improvement when given acupuncture treatments. Some of the benefit is probably due to a placebo effect, researchers admit. Their study is published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese therapy where thin needles are inserted through the skin at carefully chosen points of the body. Previous studies about its impact on pain have yielded inconsistent findings.
“Our results from individual patient data meta-analyses of nearly 18,000 randomized patients… provide the most robust evidence to date that acupuncture is a reasonable referral option for patients with chronic pain,” said lead author Andrew Vickers, PhD, of Sloan Kettering, who called the findings “of major importance for clinical practice.”
Another researcher praised the study in a commentary called “Needling the Status Quo,” which was published in the same journal.
“Vickers et al have provided some robust evidence that acupuncture seems to provide modest benefits over usual care for patients with diverse sources of chronic pain,” said Andrew L. Avins, MD, of Kaiser-Permanente in Oakland, California.
Avins noted, however, that it is not fully understood how acupuncture works and the procedure remains controversial in the “quack hunter community.”
“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,” Avins wrote. “If we are open minded enough to move the debate another notch, it has the potential to help reframe the roles and responsibilities of medical care providers.”