Is Acupuncture Effective for Treatment of Pain?

A friend of mine recently went to an acupuncturist seeking relief from back pain.  I didn't say anything, but I thought she was a bit batty.  I just have a hard time believing that sticking little needles all around your spine causes anything except a bloody mess.  So, I decided it was time to take a look at modern research surrounding this ancient practice. 

What Exactly is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is one of the key components of traditional Chinese medicine and has been used since as early as 200 BC.  It involves placing needles in the skin then manipulating them manually or by electrical stimulation.  According to Chinese medicine, stimulating acupuncture points with needles disrupts the flow of qi (pronounced chee), or "life force", throughout the body.

Acupuncture arrived in the United States in the 1970's and has been increasing in popularity since.  The technique is used for treating depression, chronic and acute pain, post-op nausea, anxiety, sleep disturbances and aiding in fertility.   As researchers study this ancient practice, they are finding that many of the 365 acupuncture points correspond to the nerve bundles or muscle trigger points within the body.  Recently, researchers have begun to study the efficacy of acupuncture.  Is this technique's touted pain relief true science or simply placebo effect?

Is Acupuncture Effective?

While 3.2 million Americans try acupuncture each year, doubts about it's efficacy remain.  In the most recent study on acupuncture published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers painstakingly analyzed data from prior research on the technique.  These studies involved nearly 18,000 patients.  Their findings?  Acupuncture outperforms sham treatments and standard medical care in individuals suffering from arthritis, migraines and chronic neck, back and shoulder pain. "We think there's firm evidence supporting acupuncture for treatment of chronic pain" say researchers involved in the study.

Other studies haven't been as supportive of acupuncture as a cure for chronic pain.  A review of acupuncture published in Pain in 2011 concluded there was little evidence for acupuncture as an effective treatment for chronic pain.  Researchers in this study found that acupuncture is no more effective than standard care for pain relief.  A 2012 study published in the Journal of Orthopedic Surgery and Research also found that acupuncture may be slightly more effective than no treatment at all but it's benefit over standard treatment is questionable.

Is Acupuncture Safe?

Acupuncture is generally safe although serious side effects have been reported.  About 10 percent of patients experience some bleeding at needle sites, a minor complication.  In rare cases, infection and injury to vital organs has occurred.  Fatalities have been reported with these more serious complications.  Complications are usually the fault inexperienced acupuncturists.  

Should You Recommend Acupuncture to Your Patients with Chronic Pain?

While the efficacy of acupuncture remains widely debated, the pain relief technique is generally safe when performed by a licensed, experienced therapist.  It may be worth a try in your patients seeking relief from chronic pain when standard therapies have proven ineffective.

Have you tried acupuncture?  Did it help relieve your pain?

Comments

I am a firm believer in acupuncture. I've dealt with a running injury for over a year. I tried everything from cortisone injections to physical therapy and even prolotherapy injections-- nothing worked. As a last ditch effort I decided to try acupuncture. The results were astounding. Acupuncture is now my go to for anything pain related. My body responds very well to it and it definitely beats anti-inflammatory drugs or other narcotics. I highly recommend it!

Sophia