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Acupuncture may go more mainstream now that new research shows that it provides modest but statistically significant benefits over both standard care and placebo for patients with chronic pain.
A team led by researchers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York looked at 29 randomized controlled trials involving a total of 17,922 people from the U.S., Germany, Spain, and Sweden who suffered with back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, or chronic headaches. For greater precision, the investigators analyzed data on the individual patients, rather than outcome summaries, as prior reviews have done. The study was published online Sept. 10 by Archives of Internal Medicine.
In 18 of the studies, patients either got acupuncture, in which needles were inserted at points of the body traditionally used to provide pain relief, or standard treatments such as analgesics, physical therapy and exercise. In 11 others, acupuncture was compared with a control group that included "sham" acupuncture, in which needles didn't break the skin or were inserted superficially.
The meta-analysis showed that patients who received real acupuncture had less pain than those who got standard care or sham acupuncture. However, the differences between true and sham acupuncture were relatively modest.
While the data "indicate that acupuncture is more than a placebo," according to the report, patients who believe that acupuncture will be effective may derive some placebo-based benefit.
Bottom line: The results provide the best evidence to date that acupuncture is a reasonable option for people with chronic pain. If you decide to try acupuncture, talk with your physician first to set realistic expectations for improvement. Our recent survey of subscribers to Consumer Reports found that many derived benefit from acupuncture and other alternative therapies for 12 common health problems. See our full report on alternative therapies, including advice on how to find a good acupuncturist. If you and your doctor decide that you need prescription help, see our Best Buy Drugs report on treating chronic pain.
Acupuncture for chronic pain [Archives of Internal Medicine]