Harvard Health Publications

Acupuncture is worth a try for chronic pain

Posted By Daniel Pendick On April 1, 2013

Chronic pain in the muscles and joints can make life miserable. Standard treatments like ice and heat, anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy, and appropriate exercises can often ease the pain. But when they don’t, acupuncture is an option with a good track record that’s worth considering.

Over the years there has been substantial debate about whether acupuncture really works for chronic pain. Research from an international team of experts adds to the evidence that it does provide real relief from common forms of pain. The team pooled the results of 29 studies involving nearly 18,000 participants. Some had acupuncture, some had “sham” acupuncture, and some didn’t have acupuncture at all. Overall, acupuncture relieved pain by about 50%. The results were published in Archives of Internal Medicine.

The study isn’t the last word on the issue, but it is one of the best quality studies to date and has made an impression.

“I think the benefit of acupuncture is clear, and the complications and potential adverse effects of acupuncture are low compared with medication,” says Dr. Lucy Chen, a board-certified anesthesiologist, specialist in pain medicine, and practicing acupuncturist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

How does it work?

Acupuncturists insert hair-thin needles into the skin at specific points around the body. It is virtually painless when done by an experienced practitioner. Inserting the needles is thought to correct imbalances in the flow of energy in the body, called qi (pronounced “chee”). As I write in the April issue of the Harvard Men’s Health Watch, in Western scientific terms acupuncture is thought to ease pain by affecting neurotransmitters, hormone levels, or the immune system.

For new pain, an acupuncturist should not always be your first stop. Dr. Chen recommends that individuals have clear diagnoses of what is causing their pain to rule out serious medical conditions that should be treated right away—and then seek out acupuncture if appropriate.

  • How often is acupuncture needed? Plan on weekly treatments until you start to see a benefit, then gradually lengthen the time until the next visit.
  • What does it cost? Acupuncture treatments range from $65 to $125 per session. Private insurers usually don’t pay for it, nor do Medicare or Medicaid. Some plans may cover the cost of a physician-acupuncturist.
  • Who administers it? Ideally a trusted, certified provider. You can search for a trained acupuncturist at the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine or by calling the organization at 904-598-1005.

Related Information: Pain Relief Without Drugs or Surgery

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