Acupuncture Effective in Treating Pain and Depression

By Pat Anson, Editor

Acupuncture can boost the effectiveness of medical care and lessen the severity of chronic pain and depression, according to a new study led by British researchers.

In a meta-analysis (a study of studies) of 29 clinical trials involving nearly 18,000 patients with chronic neck, lower back, knee or headache pain, researchers found that acupuncture significantly reduced the severity of pain when combined with standard medical care such as anti-inflammatory drugs.

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese form of treatment that involves the insertion of fine needles into acupuncture points on the body. About four million acupuncture sessions are provided each year in the UK, about half of them for pain relief. The evidence to support such treatment has been limited.

"There has been a question mark for many years over whether policy and decision makers should or should not provide wider access to acupuncture,” said Hugh MacPherson, PhD, a professor of acupuncture research at the University of York.

“Our aim was to bring together data from high quality clinical trials and provide a robust evidence base that will help reduce this uncertainty and support commissioners and health professionals in making informed decisions backed up with research."

The study, published in the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Journals Library, found that the addition of acupuncture -- compared to standard medical care alone -- significantly reduced the number of headaches and migraine attacks and reduced the severity of neck and lower back pain.  Acupuncture also reduced the pain and disability of osteoarthritis, which led to patients using less anti-inflammatory medication to control pain.

The research team also conducted a new clinical trial for depression, in which 755 patients were provided with acupuncture, counseling or antidepressants. They found that both acupuncture and counseling significantly reduced the severity of depression, and that the benefits were sustained up to 12 months after treatment.

"In the largest study of its kind, we have now provided a solid evidence base to show that not only can acupuncture and counseling bring patients out of an episode of depression, but it can keep the condition at bay for up to a year on average," said MacPherson, who added that antidepressants don’t work well for more than half of patients.

Researchers admit the benefits of acupuncture are partially associated with a placebo effect, which has contributed to uncertainty about it's clinical effectiveness. However, when compared with sham acupuncture – in which fake needles are used or inserted in the wrong locations – they say “real” acupuncture provides substantially more pain relief.

“Our new data provides a significant step forward in treating chronic pain and managing depression, because patients and health professionals can now make decisions on acupuncture with more confidence. Not only is it more cost effective, but it reduces pain levels and improves mood levels, which could reduce over reliance on drugs that can sometimes result in unwanted side effects," MacPherson said.

Acupuncture is one of the most widely practiced forms of alternative medicine. As many as 3 million Americans receive acupuncture treatments, most often for relief of chronic pain. While there is little consensus in the medical community about acupuncture’s value, a large study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that  “acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic pain and is therefore a reasonable referral option.”