While it has been practiced and observed in China for centuries, acupuncture has never found mainstream acceptance in the US. To many, this ancient practice was merely the placebo effect in action, an unproved method of alleviating pain by harnessing the power of the mind through unsubstantiated claims to true medical benefit.
A new study however shows that acupuncture delivers a 30% decrease in chronic pain. While not the first medical study to show demonstrate this, the new study is unprecedented in its size and thoroughness.
Acupuncture's Recent Growth
Acupuncture has grown rapidly in the last decade, with over 3 million Americans using it to help alleviate chronic pain of all kinds. The military now prescribes it as part of the rehabilitative treatment given to wounded war veterans, and California recently passed legislation that includes acupuncture in the list of treatments covered by the nation’s new health law.
This coverage will begin in 2014, but clearly indicates how serious California takes acupuncture as a legitimate source of health care.
The study was a review of previous acupuncture studies that compared traditional Chinese acupuncture to sham acupuncture and standard pain care.
The researchers reviewed almost 1,000 previously held studies, and due to rigorous selection criteria found only 29 which were of sufficiently high quality. They then not only examined their results, but also went back to the raw data and re-interpreted the original researcher’s conclusions. The result was a combined analysis of over 18,000 individuals from countries as varied as the United States, the UK, Spain, Germany, and Sweden.
Traditional Chinese acupuncture is practiced with long, thin needles that are inserted to just below the level of the skin. The theory is that lines of qi run through our bodies, and can become tangled or unbalanced at certain key points, called meridians. By inserting a needle into those spots, the practitioner can help improve the flow of qi and reduce pain, stress, and other physical ailments.
This theory has been hotly contested, and the new study’s use of ‘sham’ acupuncture adds fuel to the fire of controversy. Sham acupuncture involves the same usage of acupuncture needles, but disregards the traditional meridians and simply relies on the effect of the needles penetrating the skin at random locations in the body. They can also be pushed too shallowly into the skin to hit the meridian points, or be done through a machine that pricks the skin but fails to penetrate it.
The use of sham acupuncture is growing amongst the practitioners of acupuncture in general; there is a small but growing sentiment that it is not the interference with meridian points that generates the results, but rather simply the act of needle insertion to a certain depth that triggers a pain dampening effect. Practitioners of traditional acupuncture hotly contest this approach, but the results that sham practitioners have achieved are uncontestable.
The study measured pain on a scale of 1 to 100, with the patients guessing where on the scale their pain levels fell. The usage of traditional pain reducing techniques helped reduce pain levels from 60 to 30 for those who received traditional acupuncture, to 35 for those who received fake acupuncture, and to 43 in the usual treatment group.
While the difference between the traditional and sham acupuncture is small, it was definite and measured, which speaks to their being a real difference between the two, and not simply a psychological effect.
The researchers of the study stated that the results "provide the most robust evidence to date that acupuncture is a reasonable referral option." The researchers published their study today (Sept 10) in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, and are from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and a number of universities in Germany and England.
Images courtesy of trixieskips