Chronic Pain Health — 22 October 2012

As many as 3 million Americans receive acupuncture treatments, most often for relief of chronic pain. While there appears to be little consensus in the scientific community to its value, a new study in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that relief offered by acupuncture is very real and should be considered as a viable option by the medical community .

Focusing on patients who reported chronic back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, chronic headache and shoulder pain, researchers from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York conducted a six year, meta-analysis of data from 29 prior studies involving nearly 18,000 adults.

Study participants were randomly assigned treatment with acupuncture, standard treatments such as drugs and physical therapy, or “fake” acupuncture in which needles were inserted at points other than the traditional meridians.

Using a scale from zero to 100, the average participant’s pain measured 60. Conventional methods brought the pain down to 43, fake acupuncture brought it down to 35, and the actual acupuncture dropped pain to 30.

According to Dr. Andrew J. Vickers, attending research methodologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the lead author of the study, that means about half of the patients who got acupuncture had improvement in pain, compared with 30% who didn’t get acupuncture and 42.5% who had fake acupuncture.

“This has been a controversial subject for a long time,” Vickers told the New York Times “But when you try to answer the question the right way, as we did, you get very clear answers. We think there’s firm evidence supporting acupuncture for the treatment of chronic pain.”

One limitation of the study noted by authors was that since comparisons between acupuncture and no acupuncture could not be blinded, both performance and response bias were possible.

In an accompanying editorial,  Dr. Andrew Avins of the University of California, San Francisco pointed out that the study’s authors left themselves open to criticism by relying on fixed-effects models “that are less conservative than random-effects models and more likely to yield statistical significance.”

For him, a greater concern was the potential for skepticism generated by the study’s assertions that acupuncture works only slightly better than a placebo in treating pain.  Avins worries that colleagues who don’t seriously consider acupuncture as a treatment option will continue dismiss it as nothing more than a placebo.

“At the end of the day,” says Avins, “our patients seek our help to feel better and lead longer and more enjoyable lives, Perhaps a more productive strategy at this point would be to provide whatever benefits we can for our patients, while we continue to explore more carefully all mechanisms of healing.”

Acupuncture is the insertion and stimulation of needles at specific points on the body to facilitate recovery of health. Originally developed as part of traditional Chinese medicine, some contemporary acupuncturists approach it in modern physiologic terms, helping make it one of the most widely practiced forms of alternative medicine in the country.


About Author

Richard Lenti

Richard Lenti has worked as a news writer for the last 20 years at various television stations in Los Angeles. He is a Golden Mike winner and a graduate of California State University, Fresno. With roots in print journalism, Richard is excited to be “published” once again; having people read his work as opposed to having it read to them. As a freelance writer his work has appeared in the Easy Reader, L.A. Jazz Scene, Irrigation and Green Industry, and the KCAL 9 Online website.

(1) Reader Comment

  1. Dr avins perhaps should be more concerned with the sorry state of affairs in pain care due to doctors careless ignorance of people in pain. To talk of careful exploration in pain care reflects a lack of awareness of what medical research and patients in pain have told us- that pain care is anything but careful. A clear example is the meningitis outbrak- due to greed of pain inteerventionists to use cheaper medicine without regard to quality and effects on people in pain. Doctors obviously are the last to dioscover the water, so to speak- they see pain care as a nonissue and wich to continue there reckless disregard for people in pain and those who care about them. I dont know what evidence doctors keep up with in regards to pain care- but i do know all the research and evidence they have ignored- to the publics detriment.