As many as 3 million Americans receive acupuncture treatments, most often for relief of chronic pain. While there appears to be little consensus in the scientific community to its value, a new study in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that relief offered by acupuncture is very real and should be considered as a viable option by the medical community .
Focusing on patients who reported chronic back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, chronic headache and shoulder pain, researchers from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York conducted a six year, meta-analysis of data from 29 prior studies involving nearly 18,000 adults.
Study participants were randomly assigned treatment with acupuncture, standard treatments such as drugs and physical therapy, or “fake” acupuncture in which needles were inserted at points other than the traditional meridians.
Using a scale from zero to 100, the average participant’s pain measured 60. Conventional methods brought the pain down to 43, fake acupuncture brought it down to 35, and the actual acupuncture dropped pain to 30.
According to Dr. Andrew J. Vickers, attending research methodologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the lead author of the study, that means about half of the patients who got acupuncture had improvement in pain, compared with 30% who didn’t get acupuncture and 42.5% who had fake acupuncture.
“This has been a controversial subject for a long time,” Vickers told the New York Times “But when you try to answer the question the right way, as we did, you get very clear answers. We think there’s firm evidence supporting acupuncture for the treatment of chronic pain.”
One limitation of the study noted by authors was that since comparisons between acupuncture and no acupuncture could not be blinded, both performance and response bias were possible.
In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Andrew Avins of the University of California, San Francisco pointed out that the study’s authors left themselves open to criticism by relying on fixed-effects models “that are less conservative than random-effects models and more likely to yield statistical significance.”
For him, a greater concern was the potential for skepticism generated by the study’s assertions that acupuncture works only slightly better than a placebo in treating pain. Avins worries that colleagues who don’t seriously consider acupuncture as a treatment option will continue dismiss it as nothing more than a placebo.
“At the end of the day,” says Avins, “our patients seek our help to feel better and lead longer and more enjoyable lives, 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.”
Acupuncture is the insertion and stimulation of needles at specific points on the body to facilitate recovery of health. Originally developed as part of traditional Chinese medicine, some contemporary acupuncturists approach it in modern physiologic terms, helping make it one of the most widely practiced forms of alternative medicine in the country.