Acupuncture Benefits are more than Placebo, Study Asserts

The most rigorous and detailed analysis of acupuncture to date has found that the treatment can help to treat your arthritis, migraines and any other chronic pain that may affect your wellness. The new research, which was published in Archives of Internal Medicine, involved data on nearly 18,000 patients which revealed that acupuncture outperformed sham treatments and standard care when used by people suffering from osteoarthritis, migraines and chronic back, neck and shoulder pain.


Dr. Andrew J. Vickers, attending research methodologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and the lead author of the study, noted, ‘This has been a controversial subject for a long time, 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.’ Acupuncture is based on the insertion of needles at various places on your body to stimulate so-called acupoints, and is among the most widely practiced forms of alternative medicine in the West. More often than not, the treatment is sought out by adults who want relief from their chronic pain, but children are increasingly using the treatment also – making research into its effectiveness more important than ever.


The problem many people have with acupuncture is that no one knows whether the benefits are actual, or psychological. Therefore, Dr. Vickers led a team of scientists from around the world — including England, Germany, Sweden and elsewhere — to answer this niggling doubt; is acupuncture only providing a placebo effect? The researchers pooled years of data and – rather than using the common, but less rigorous, method of averaging the results or conclusions – they first selected 29 randomised studies of acupuncture that they determined to be of high quality, and then contacted the original researchers for their raw data.


Through this method, Vickers’ team was able to scrutinise and pool the research for further analysis, thus helping them correct for statistical and methodological problems with the previous studies, and reach more precise and reliable conclusions. Dr. Vickers pointed out, ‘Replicating pretty much every single number reported in dozens of papers is no quick or easy task,’ which is perhaps why the painstaking process took the team about six years. The team collected evidence from studies that compared acupuncture with usual care, like over-the-counter pain relievers and other standard medicines, as well as including studies that used sham acupuncture treatments, in which superficial needle-insertion was used or patients in control groups were treated with needles that secretly retracted into the handles.


In the end, roughly half of patients who received acupuncture reported improvements to their wellbeing, and just 30% of patients who did not undergo the treatment reported likewise. According to Dr Vickers, ‘There were 30 or 40 people from all over the world involved in this research, and as a whole the sense was that this was a clinically important effect size.’ He added that this is especially the case given that acupuncture ‘is relatively non-invasive and relatively safe.’ The results are statistically significant enough not to be a mere reflection of a psychological boost and nothing more. Dr. Vickers said, ‘They’re not just getting some placebo effect. It’s not some sort of strange healing ritual.’


In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Andrew L. Avins, a research scientist at Kaiser Permanente who focuses on musculoskeletal pain and preventive medicine, commented that the relationship between conventional Western medicine and ‘the world of complementary and alternative medicine remains ambiguous.’ But the new study, at least in the case of acupuncture, provides ‘robust evidence’ that complementary wellness practices can provide ‘modest benefits over usual care for patients with diverse sources of chronic pain.’

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