A new study says acupuncture needles help with pain, even if the acupuncture treatment is fake.
CHICAGO — Acupuncture gets a thumbs-up for helping relieve pain from chronic headaches, backaches and arthritis in a review of more than two dozen studies — the latest analysis of an often-studied therapy that has as many fans as critics.
Some think its only powers are a psychological, placebo effect. But some doctors think even if that’s the explanation for acupuncture’s effectiveness, there’s no reason not to offer it if it makes people feel better.
The analysis examined 29 studies involving almost 18,000 adults. The researchers concluded that the needle remedy worked better than usual pain treatment and slightly better than fake acupuncture. That kind of analysis is not the strongest type of research, but the authors took extra steps including examining raw data from the original studies.
The results “provide the most robust evidence to date that acupuncture is a reasonable referral option,” wrote the authors, who include researchers with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and several universities in England and Germany.
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Their study isn’t proof, but it adds to evidence that acupuncture may benefit a range of conditions.
The analysis was published recently in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The federal government’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine paid for most of the study, aided by a small grant from the Samueli Institute, a nonprofit group that supports research on alternative healing.
Acupuncture’s use has become more mainstream. The military has used it to help treat pain from war wounds, and California recently passed legislation that would include acupuncture among treatments recommended for coverage under provisions of the nation’s new health-care law. Some private insurance plans already cover acupuncture; Medicare does not.
In traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture involves inserting long, very thin needles just beneath the skin’s surface at specific points on the body to control pain or stress. Fake acupuncture studied in research sometimes also uses needles, but on different areas of the body.
Scientists aren’t sure what biological mechanism could explain how acupuncture might relieve pain, but the authors of the new study say the results suggest there’s more involved than just a placebo effect.
Acupuncture skeptic Dr. Stephen Barrett said the study results are dubious. The retired psychiatrist runs Quackwatch, a website on medical scams and says studies of acupuncture often involve strict research conditions that don’t mirror how the procedure is used in the real world.
The new analysis combined results from studies of patients with common types of chronic pain — back, neck and shoulder, and recurring headaches. The studies had randomly assigned patients to acupuncture and either fake acupuncture or standard pain treatment including medication or physical therapy.
The authors explained their statistical findings by using a pain scale of 0 to 100: The patients’ average baseline pain measured 60; it dropped to 30 on average in those who got acupuncture, 35 in those who got fake acupuncture, and 43 in the usual treatment group.
While the difference in results for real-versus-fake acupuncture was small, it suggests acupuncture could have more than a psychological effect, said lead author Andrew Vickers, a cancer researcher at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. The center offers acupuncture and other alternative therapies for cancer patients with hard-to-treat pain.