Acupuncture is an effective treatment for chronic pain, although there is only a relatively small difference between real and sham treatment, a meta-analysis has found.
The review included almost 18,000 patients with four types of chronic pain: back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, chronic headache, and shoulder pain.
Pain was at least halved in 50% of patients treated with true acupuncture, compared with 43% in those given sham acupuncture, and 30% given no acupuncture, the review of 29 “high-quality” trials found.
“Significant differences between true and sham acupuncture indicate that acupuncture is more effective than a placebo,” the authors wrote Tuesday in the Archives of Internal Medicine (online).
“However, these differences are relatively modest, suggesting that factors in addition to the specific effects of needling are important contributors to the therapeutic effects of acupuncture.”
Sham acupuncture treatment was delivered using techniques such as inserting needles superficially, and using needles that retract into a shaft rather than pierce a patient’s skin.
The study provided the “most robust” evidence so far on the issue, the authors said, although they acknowledged there was much resistance to the treatment among medical professionals.
“This lack of biological plausibility, and its provenance in theories lying outside of biomedicine, makes acupuncture a highly controversial therapy,” the added.