Why Does Acupuncture Work?

Acupuncture for chronic pain is better than placebo

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Acupuncture may help an estimated three million Americans improve their health conditions each year. However, many people question its merits since the science behind it is not fully understood.

A recent study looked at the effect of acupuncture treatment on chronic pain conditions.

This research study found that those treated with acupuncture for chronic back pain had better results than those not treated with acupuncture or treated with sham acupuncture.

"Acupuncture? - Speak with a licensed professional."

Andrew J. Vickers, PhD, of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and colleagues analyzed patient data from 29 randomized controlled trials. The research focused on back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, chronic headache and shoulder pain in a total of 17,922 patients.

Trials were eligible for inclusion if they contained at least one group receiving acupuncture and one control group receiving sham acupuncture or no acupuncture at all.

Patients included in the study had pain for at least four weeks. Treatment with acupuncture continued for more than four weeks after the first treatment session.

Acupuncture is the inserting of needles into specific points of the body to relieve pain and promote health.

"Traditional acupuncture is thought to improve the body's energy flow along meridian lines or energy channels throughout the body," explains Diane Shiao, PT, MSPT, DPT of Revive Physical Therapy and Wellness in Edison, New Jersey. "Because energy flows with blood, circulation increases and stress reduces with acupuncture."

Sham acupuncture in this study included inserting needles superficially by using devices with needles that retract when inserted into the skin or needle-less techniques like electrical stimulation or laser.

By including sham acupuncture in the study, the researchers accounted for any results due to placebo affect.

The researchers found statistically significant differences when comparing results of acupuncture to no acupuncture and acupuncture to sham acupuncture. The differences were seen across all types of chronic pain examined.

According to The Atlantic, the results of the study translated to a 30 percent reduction in pain for patients receiving no acupuncture and 42.5 percent reduction for those receiving fake acupuncture. Those who received genuine acupuncture experienced a 50 percent reduction in pain.

The authors feel that the modest differences between sham acupuncture and acupuncture suggest that factors beyond the needles are important components of therapy.

Differences for acupuncture versus no acupuncture or sham acupuncture were also modest for patients receiving ancillary care, such as physical therapy, instead of usual care alone.

"Another reason why this treatment may help is that the distressed client is laying down for 20 min to an hour relaxing the body," said Dr. Shiao. "Relaxation and meditation is also proven to reduce tension and pain."

The article was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Funding and support was provided by The Acupuncture Trialists’ Collaboration and a grant from the Samueli Institute. One author receives funding from the UK National Institute for Health Research.

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Review Date: 
September 9, 2012
Last Updated:
February 28, 2013