Struggling With Chronic Pain?

Study finds acupuncture effective for pain relief

acupuncture points chart

The day started like a usual Monday morning. It was early morning, and I was already in my office, beginning the painstaking ritual of sorting through all the email that piled up over the weekend.

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I started skimming through an email about a study called, “Acupuncture for Chronic Pain,” published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine. It was nothing that would have otherwise caught my attention as throughout my career as an acupuncturist in the Wellness Institute’s Center for Integrative Medicine, I’ve reviewed stacks of research studies regarding acupuncture.

Far from ordinary

But as I continued reading the details of the manuscript, I could feel myself becoming giddy with excitement. The data presented in this meta-analysis was far from ordinary! My eyes darted to the conclusion statement at the end of the abstract that read: Acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic pain and is therefore a reasonable referral option.”

At the Center for Integrative Medicine, I’ve treated thousands of patients, many of them (more than half) come to me complaining of pain, whether from arthritis, injury or diseases like cancer. Both my patients and I have experienced first-hand how acupuncture helps manage pain. Typically, after just a few acupuncture treatments, pain scores begin to drop in intensity and frequency.

Study details

The aim of this study was to not only determine whether acupuncture was effective in managing chronic pain, but the researchers wanted to also identify the validity and relevance of acupuncture for patients suffering from chronic pain.

The researchers set out to determine whether true acupuncture, the Eastern Medical technique of placing fine needles into the body to elicit a therapeutic response, was effective in relieving chronic pain. They established strict guidelines about the type and quality of the studies they would include. In total, they identified 29 randomized control trials that addressed chronic pain for the following conditions:

  • Back pain
  • Neck pain
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Headache
  • Shoulder pain

The authors gathered raw data about each individual patient, assessing close to 18,000 patients. They determined if the type of treatment was successful in decreasing pain scores by at least 50 percent, comparing true acupuncture both to sham acupuncture and to no acupuncture/usual care.

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Pain reduction

A pain reduction of 50 percent occurred:

  • In 50 percent of patients who had true acupuncture
  • In 42 percent of patients who had a sham acupuncture
  • In 30 percent of patients who had no acupuncture (just standard of care)

The results of the analysis demonstrated statistically significant differences between true acupuncture compared to the control groups.

Interpreting results

Here was evidence that acupuncture is effective in relieving chronic pain, with the data even suggesting pain relief was better than standard of care. The authors conclude acupuncture was found to be “superior to both no acupuncture control and sham acupuncture for the treatment of chronic pain.”

Of course this came as no surprise to me as this has been my experience – that pain is often significantly reduced after acupuncture treatments. But having research to support this experience offered a truly satisfying feeling.

As the lead acupuncturist at the Center for Integrative Medicine, I straddle Eastern and Western Medicine on a daily basis. Part of my responsibility is to facilitate open dialogue amongst my patients and peers because, while there are obvious differences in each respective paradigm of medicine, the commonalities are very prevalent.

I educate physicians, nurses and other western medical clinicians on not only the effectiveness of acupuncture, but also the mechanism by which we know it to influence the body to date.

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Three thousand years ago, ancient Chinese physicians did not have modern scientific equipment to assess changes in the body after acupuncture treatments.

Now, we have the tools to determine how acupuncture works. There is a growing body of evidence illustrating the means in which acupuncture influences the body, especially the nervous system. For example, with pain, imaging studies show acupuncture promotes the brain to release chemicals like endorphins, which are the body’s natural pain-relieving chemicals.  

This study offers further data to support acupuncture’s relevance in clinical practice, especially in the treatment of chronic pain. When all of the hype surrounding this study dies down, I hope this message remains loud and clear for people with chronic pain: acupuncture is an additional, viable treatment option.

More information

Acupuncture for Chronic Pain. Individual Patient Data Meta-Analysis was published online by the Archives of Internal Medicine on Sept. 10, 2012.                               

Jamie Starkey, LAc

Jamie Starkey, LAc

Jamie Starkey is Lead Acupuncturist at the Cleveland Clinic's Center for Integrative Medicine, where she bridges the worlds of Eastern and Western medical philosophy.
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