Quick Study: Acupuncture Takes the Sting Out of Chronic Pain

The treatment has its detractors, but a review of several studies shows it's effective as a pain reliever.

Acupuncture, chronic pain

Acupuncture, in which needles are inserted into the skin at strategic points on the body, is used for a variety of health remedies. (Photo: Jon Feingersh/Getty Images) 

Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal and got in a boxing ring.

The study: A rigorous review of 29 studies finds that treating chronic pain with acupuncture works, but may just edge past placebo treatments in effectiveness. The study, released online today in the Archives of Internal Medicine, analyzed data from previous randomized controlled trials that compared acupuncture to no acupuncture or sham acupuncture for treating chronic back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, chronic headache and shoulder pain.

Both real acupuncture and the sham variety (which included inserting needles superficially into the skin and detuned laser treatments) worked to lessen pain, compared with no acupuncture. But there wasn’t that much difference between the sham and the true acupuncture groups.

MORE: Is Meditation a Cure for Loneliness?

For example, on a scale of 0 to 100, the average pain score at the start of a study might be 60. At the end of the study, the no-acupuncture group average score might be 43, while the sham group would be 35 and the true acupuncture would be 30.

“Although the data indicate that acupuncture is more than a placebo,” the authors wrote, “the differences between true and sham acupuncture are relatively modest, suggesting that factors in addition to the specific effects of needling are important contributors to therapeutic effects.”

What we already know: Although acupuncture is extremely popular as a pain treatment and millions swear by it, not all health experts are convinced of its effectiveness and it's not always covered by health insurance. Because the treatment isn’t part of conventional Western medicine, many are skeptical that it works better than other more mainstream remedies.

What this means for you: Chronic pain can be debilitating and have a major impact on people’s lives. Although several types of therapies exist, many people like acupuncture’s no-drug approach. Now they can be reassured that it can make a difference—even if the jury is still out on how that difference is made.

If you tried acupuncture as a treatment for pain, did it work? Let us know in the comments.

Comments ()