What proof is there that acupuncture works?


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One of the major issues surrounding acupuncture is the question of whether or not this method of treatment actually works to effectively achieve its ends. Different organisations, publications, and practitioners make all manner of claims about acupuncture, some saying it is a tool for pain relief, while others argue that it is an effective way of treating diseases like arthritis. In this article we look at the existing evidence for acupuncture’s effectiveness.

Studies into the effectiveness of acupuncture

An important point needs to be made about studies and investigations into the effectiveness of acupuncture, and that is that many of these attempts to prove or disprove the technique’s merit are largely inconclusive. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that there isn’t enough good quality evidence to reach a concrete conclusion about many aspects of acupuncture. In truth, much more work needs to be done to verify whether or not acupuncture can do what it says on the tin.

One of the problems with studying the effectiveness of acupuncture is the placebo effect. This is the phenomenon that occurs when a person experiences a positive effect after receiving a treatment that should not have any bearing on their condition, purely because they expect to experience a positive effect. In clinical studies of drugs placebos (fake versions of the medication) are introduced into a number of test subjects to account for the placebo effect.

Because of the nature of acupuncture, it is difficult to account or adjust for the placebo effect. In fact it is believed by some that the positive results of acupuncture are largely because of a placebo effect more than anything else.

Positive evidence of what acupuncture can achieve

There is convincing evidence that acupuncture, when used correctly and by a trained practitioner, can provide reliable treatment for conditions like:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea (particularly post-operative nausea)
  • Pain and discomfort during a particular stage of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) called oocyte retrieval
  • Osteoarthritis affecting the knee
  • Tooth pain
  • Back pain
  • Pain during an investigative procedure called endoscopy (where a long tube with a camera on the end is passed into the GI tract)

It is important to note that despite the fact that there is convincing evidence from reliable scientific sources that acupuncture can effectively treat these conditions, the huge variation in the actual practice of acupuncture means that a person may not necessarily receive the benefits of treatment if an acupuncturist is using a different technique to those studied.

The strongest evidence in support of acupuncture is for the relief of post-operational sickness (nausea and vomiting) and for chronic back pain. In fact, the only acupuncture treatment recommended by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) thus far has been for chronic pain in the lower back. This means that NICE, an organisation responsible for advising NHS staff as to the treatments that would suit them best, believes that there is enough scientific evidence available to support the use of acupuncture to relieve back pain.

Negative evidence of acupuncture’s effectiveness

While some studies have shown acupuncture to have potentially useful applications in certain areas of healthcare, some areas have been shown to lack any sort of response to acupuncture.

In the past acupuncturist have claimed that treatment can remedy rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease causing inflammation of the joints, however the evidence to date shows that this is not the case. Similarly acupuncture has been touted by some as a means by which to stop smoking or to lose weight, and thus far these claims have been disproved by researchers.

Again the point needs to be made that while these claims have been disproved by certain studies, the fact that acupuncture varies so broadly in its applications means that completely concrete conclusions can’t be reached.

Inconclusive evidence of acupuncture’s effectiveness

Most of the diseases and conditions which acupuncture is purported to remedy have yet to be studied in enough detail for any kind of conclusion to be reached. Reliable and comparable studies are required, and examples of conditions that remain in a therapeutic grey area are:

  • Depression
  • Neck pain
  • Stroke
  • Sciatica
  • Tinnitus
  • Asthma
  • Addictions (substance abuse)

There remains a definite need to address many questions surrounding the effectiveness and reliability of acupuncture techniques. In the years to come we will hopefully have access to more information in this area, and can reach more solid conclusions about whether or not acupuncture is a reliable method of treatment.


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