Acupuncture more than placebo effect for chronic pain, study shows

Acupuncture eases some kinds of chronic pain – and it’s not just a placebo effect at work, researchers who looked at data from nearly 18,000 patients found.

An estimated 3 million American adults get acupuncture treatments annually; still, there “remains considerable controversy as to its value,” the researchers wrote in a study published this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

But they found that for back and neck pain, chronic headache, osteoarthritis and shoulder pain, acupuncture works better than no treatment and better than “sham” acupuncture – done, for example, with needles inserted superficially or with needles that retract into the handles instead of going into the skin.


“Although the data indicate that acupuncture is more than a placebo, the differences between true and sham acupuncture are relatively modest, suggesting that factors in addition to the specific effects of needling are important contributors to therapeutic effects.”

There is no accepted mechanism for how the acupuncture works, the researchers said.

Acupuncture is the practice of inserting and stimulating needles at specific spots on the body.

The patients had less pain, with scores on a generally used scale of 0.42 to 0.55 standard deviations from no acupuncture, the authors wrote. The average effect is “of clear and clinical relevance,” they said.

The researchers noted that their work might help people gain access to the treatment – given that “many clinicians would feel uncomfortable” referring patients to a treatment with only placebo effect. And health insurance reimbursements are less likely for therapies “that do not have specific effects.”

The study, they said, provides “the most robust evidence to date that acupuncture is a reasonable referral option for patients with chronic pain.”