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Acupuncture Really Does Offer Pain Relief

< Sep. 12, 2012 > -- Although acupuncture is still not widely accepted among doctors in the U.S., a new analysis of previous research found that it does work to relieve chronic pain.

Photo of woman with acupuncture needles on face

In all, researchers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City pored over data from 29 studies involving nearly 18,000 people. The studies had been done not only in the U.S., but also in the several European countries.

"We looked at only the best-quality studies," says study author Andrew Vickers, M.D. "So I can say with confidence that what we found is the strongest evidence to date supporting the effectiveness of acupuncture."

The researchers looked at how well acupuncture worked to relieve one of four types of chronic pain that each patient had endured for at least one month: back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, chronic headache including migraines, and shoulder pain.

Therapies compared

All of the studies they reviewed were randomized, controlled trials, which are considered the best type of research. All of the studies compared acupuncture with either "usual care," which involved no acupuncture, or "sham acupuncture." Sham acupuncture meant treatment that used retractable needles or needles that were placed too shallowly.

The researchers found that true acupuncture was able to cut pain in half, compared with only a 30 percent drop in pain for people who received no acupuncture.

Acupuncture also seemed to give about the same degree of pain relief across all pain types.

"Basically, what we see here is that the pain relief difference from acupuncture versus no acupuncture is notable, and important, and difficult to ignore," Dr. Vickers says.

Popular treatment

About 3 million Americans each year turn to acupuncture for treatment of pain and other conditions. But many U.S. doctors say any benefits of acupuncture come from the placebo effect, not from any true physiological improvement.

Dr. Vickers and the other researchers urge anyone interested in using acupuncture to find a qualified practitioner.

Not for all

And Ed Ross, M.D., at Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston, says that people should keep in mind that acupuncture may not work for everyone.

"I would say try it, and if it works, great," Dr. Ross says. "But I also believe in an interdisciplinary approach to pain management. So acupuncture should be considered as only one part of a whole treatment plan."

The study was published in this week's Archives of Internal Medicine.

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What Does Acupuncture Feel Like?

Acupuncture is usually done using hair-thin metallic needles. Exactly how acupuncture feels differs from person to person, but most people feel minimal pain as the needle is put in place. The acupuncturist inserts the needle to a point that makes a sensation of pressure or ache. He or she may heat the needles during the treatment or apply a mild electric current to them. Some people say they feel energized by the treatment, and others say they feel relaxed.

If an acupuncture needle is placed improperly, it can cause soreness and pain during treatment.

Needles must be sterilized to prevent infection. That's why it is important to seek treatment from a qualified acupuncture practitioner. The FDA regulates acupuncture needles just as it does other medical devices.

Instead of needles, other forms of stimulation are sometimes used, including:

  • Heat

  • Pressure, called acupressure

  • Friction

  • Suction

  • Impulses of electromagnetic energy

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

Online Resources

(Our Organization is not responsible for the content of Internet sites.)

American Cancer Society - Acupuncture

Archives of Internal Medicine - Acupuncture for Chronic Pain

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine - Acupuncture