Does Acupuncture Really Work? Science Says Yes

A recent study found that acupuncture really does relieve pain.

An informal poll of my fellow office workers unearthed a surprising conformity of opinion when it came to acupuncture: None of us have tried it; all of us are a little squeamish, but we’d like to give it a shot. And why not? There’s something mysterious and alluring about those needles, with their Eastern exoticism and antiquity. (Ancient pictographs suggest the practice may date back as far as the Stone Age.) But we all may be lining up to be stuck now that a new mega-study has revealed the Chinese alternative-medical technique does relieve chronic pain—better than standard Western relief treatments, and better than pretend-acupuncture techniques designed to fool study subjects into thinking they were being treated (so as to negate the “placebo effect).

A report in JAMA’s Archives of Internal Medicine showed that when ranking their pain on a low-to-high scale of one to 100, patients receiving the real thing reported an average drop in pain to 30, compared to 35 in those who got the faux-cupuncture and 43 in those getting standard care, including drugs and physical therapy. “Our results from individual patient data meta-analyses of nearly 18,000 randomized patients in high-quality RCTs [random controlled trials] provide the most robust evidence to date that acupuncture is a reasonable referral option for patients with chronic pain,” the study’s authors write.

Acupuncture has a long and checkered history in the West. It first gained attention in the U.S. when members of President Nixon’s 1972 delegation to China observed an operation conducted on a patient supposedly anesthesized only with acupuncture needles. (That was later found to be a sham.) The first legal American acupuncture clinic was established that same year in Washington, D.C., and the following year, the IRS declared treatments deductible as a medical expense. But the existence of the qi, yin, yang and meridians on which acupuncture is based has never been confirmed by any sort of science, and the practice has been derided by everyone from the National Council Against Health Fraud to the editor in chief of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine. Still, of doctors polled in 2005, 59 percent said they believed acupuncture could be effective in relieving pain. Now it seems they were right.

One of my colleagues, Christy Speer, is slated to get acupuncture treatment for her recurring shoulder and back pain in the next few weeks; you’ll be able to read her report on what happened right here on Be Well Philly. Christy, be ready to stick out your tongue; examining it is one of the ways in which traditional acupuncturists determine where your qi is out of whack. And thanks in advance for being our guinea pig, because what we’re all really dying to know is: Do those needles hurt?

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