I’ve said in the past that while acupuncture has no proven track record of relieving the symptoms (or root causes) of major illnesses like cancer, heart disease, viral infections or the like, it did have some potential application in the area of pain relief. One look at Wikipedia and you’ll see a list of citations showing the studies that have suggested there was a statistically significant difference between normal and “sham” (fake) acupuncture, while both were significantly higher than no treatment at all. Even the American Medical Association and the National Institute of Health have suggested it for pain management and other possible maladies, but their endorsements are far from enthusiastic.
So there might be something to it? Maybe? Sort of?
I found this recent meta-analysis published in the June issue of Anesthesia and Analgesia, concluding that after pouring through thousands of studies and their methodologies, there is still not enough data to conclude that there’s any benefit at all to the procedure. Most points of contention revolved around the control of the studies, saying that even though there may have been some statistical significance to the findings by researchers like Vickers and Cronin, it wasn’t enough to be of any clinical significance.
The best controlled studies show a clear pattern, with acupuncture the outcome does not depend on needle location or even needle insertion. Since these variables are those that define acupuncture, the only sensible conclusion is that acupuncture does not work. Everything else is the expected noise of clinical trials, and this noise seems particularly high with acupuncture research. The most parsimonious conclusion is that with acupuncture there is no signal, only noise.
The PDF of the journal article is here. It’s in the June issue of Anesthesia and Analgesia, Vol. 16 No. 6, pp 1360-3.
As with Reiki and other alternative forms of “medicine”, there’s such an incredible amount of noise in the form of placebo effect and confirmation bias that it becomes far more difficult to measure its efficacy versus something with more definitive benchmarks like a cancer drug or cholesterol medication. Keep in mind that if the standard for acupuncture were similar, it’s clear that on the quality of the research alone it wouldn’t have ever been approved by the FDA. I personally think it’s been given a pass because even if it does little good, it supposedly does little harm either … provided it’s done with sterile needles.
So what do you do? If you’re the kind of person who believes in meridians and qi, then you’re likely going to think this stuff works regardless of any scientific study. In reality, there’s no reason to believe in a mystical flow of energy going through your body in lines that have something to do with your internal organs but aren’t located anywhere near the ones they reference. That said, I think it’s possible that the use of needles and the small endorphin / cortisol boost they supposedly provide could give some benefit, but for the reasons given above it’s damn near impossible to tell by way of a clinical study. It didn’t help me for my back pain, I know that much.
In conclusion, my suggestion is if you’re interested in pain relief and relaxation, take some aspirin and schedule a massage with a cute therapist. At the very least know you’re getting something tangible for your money.