It is easy to ridicule a 2000-year-old treatment that can seem closer to magic than to science. Indeed, from the 1970s to around 2005, the skeptic’s point of view was understandable, because the scientific evidence to show that acupuncture worked, and why, was weak, and clinical trials were small and of poor quality.
But things have changed since then. A lot.
Thanks to the development of valid placebo controls (for example, a retractable “sham” device that looks like an acupuncture needle but does not penetrate the skin), and the publication of several large and well-designed clinical trials in the last decade, we have the start of a solid foundation for truly understanding the effectiveness of acupuncture.
How do we know if acupuncture really works for pain?
Individual large-scale clinical studies have consistently demonstrated that acupuncture provided better pain relief compared with usual care. However, most studies also showed little difference between real and sham (fake) acupuncture. In order to address this concern, a 2012 meta-analysis combined data from roughly 18,000 individual patients in 23 high-quality randomized controlled trials of acupuncture for common pain conditions. This analysis conclusively demonstrated that acupuncture is superior to sham for low back pain, headache, and osteoarthritis, and improvements seen were similar to that of other widely used non-opiate pain relievers.
And the safety profile of acupuncture is excellent, with very few adverse events when performed by a trained practitioner. Meanwhile, basic science studies of acupuncture involving animals and humans have shown other potential benefits, from lowering blood pressure to long-lasting improvements in brain function. More broadly, acupuncture research has resulted in a number of insights and advances in biomedicine, with applications beyond the field of acupuncture itself.
Is acupuncture really that good?
We understand why there may be continued skepticism about acupuncture. There has been ambiguity in the language acupuncture researchers employ to describe acupuncture treatments, and confusion surrounding the ancient concept of acupuncture points and meridians, which is central to the practice of acupuncture. Indeed, the question of whether acupuncture points actually “exist” has been largely avoided by the acupuncture research community, even though acupuncture point terminology continues to be used in research studies. So, it is fair to say that acupuncture researchers have contributed to doubts about acupuncture, and a concerted effort is needed to resolve this issue. Nevertheless, the practice of acupuncture has emerged as an important nondrug option that can help chronic pain patients avoid the use of potentially harmful medications, especially opiates with their serious risk of substance use disorder.
Finding a balanced view
A post on acupuncture last year dismissed acupuncture as a costly, ineffective, and dangerous treatment for headache. This prompted us to point out the need for a measured and balanced view of the existing evidence, particularly in comparison to other treatments. Although the responses that followed the article overwhelmingly supported acupuncture, it nevertheless remains a concern that this practice attracts this kind of attack. Acupuncture practitioners and researchers must take responsibility for addressing deficiencies in acupuncture’s knowledge base and clarifying its terminology.
That said, we need to recognize that acupuncture can be part of the solution to the immense problem of chronic pain and opiate addiction that is gripping our society. That this solution comes from an ancient practice with a theoretical foundation incompletely understood by modern science should make it even more interesting and worthy of our attention. Clinicians owe it to their patients to learn about alternative, nondrug treatments and to answer patients’ questions and concerns knowledgeably and respectfully.
Acupuncture in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee: a randomised trial. Lancet, July 2005.
Acupuncture in Patients With Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomized Controlled Trial. JAMA Internal Medicine, February 2006.
Acupuncture for Chronic Pain: Individual Patient Data Meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine, October 2012.
Survey of Adverse Events Following Acupuncture (SAFA): a prospective study of 32,000 consultations. Acupuncture in Medicine, December 2001.
Safety of Acupuncture: Results of a Prospective Observational Study with 229,230 Patients and Introduction of a Medical Information and Consent Form. Complementary Medicine Research, April 2009.
The safety of acupuncture during pregnancy: a systematic review. Acupuncture in Medicine, June 2014.
Paradoxes in Acupuncture Research: Strategies for Moving Forward. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medcine, 2011.
The Long-term Effect of Acupuncture for Migraine Prophylaxis: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Internal Medicine, April 2017.