Acupuncture: Is It Just a Sham?

In the largest study of its kind, researchers examined whether acupuncture really helps with chronic pain.

New research suggests that acupuncture is an effective treatment for chronic pain. Photograph courtesy of Shutterstock.

Acupuncture, the alternative medicine that involves poking and prodding the body with needles, has been around for centuries, but its purported benefits have been met with plenty of doubt.

Now new research has found that acupuncture, which originated in ancient China, is an effective treatment for chronic pain, compared with no acupuncture or “sham” acupuncture.

Researchers analyzed data from various controlled trials, involving close to 18,000 patients from the United States and European countries, making it one of the largest studies on acupuncture to date. They found that patients who received actual acupuncture treatment experienced less pain in the back and neck and reported less pain from osteoarthritis and chronic headaches.

On the other hand, those who received sham acupuncture, where needles were inserted superficially or retracted into the handle without penetrating the skin, reported higher pain levels. Acupuncture patients also reported a 0.55 lower pain score than those who did not receive any treatment.

The results prove that acupuncture is certainly more than just a sham or a placebo, researchers say, and it is a “reasonable” option for patients dealing with chronic pain. The method involves sticking needles into the body at specific locations, such as the forehead or back, to activate an energy system in the body called qi. The idea is that by unlocking the qi and allowing it to flow freely, any pain in that specific area is relieved.

But before you hurry off to book an appointment, know this: Researchers also acknowledge that the reported differences in pain levels between true and sham acupuncture were “relatively modest.” They suggest that continued research into all healing methods is needed.

The full study was published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine

Have you had experience with acupuncture treatments? Tell us about it in the comments section.