The Pros and Cons of Acupuncture

By Pat Anson, Editor

Acupuncture has been an integral part of Chinese medicine for thousands of years, but Western medicine still has trouble deciding whether needle therapy is an effective treatment for chronic pain.

The latest example appears in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), with two opinion pieces written by doctors who sharply disagree about acupuncture’s effectiveness. One doctor with the British Medical Acupuncture Society feels it’s a safe and effective alternative to drugs, while two Danish researchers maintain there is no solid clinical evidence that acupuncture works.

“Doctors should not recommend acupuncture for pain because there is insufficient evidence that it is clinically worth while,” wrote Professors Asbjørn Hróbjartsson, University of Southern Denmark, and Edzard Ernst, University of Exeter. “Overviews of clinical pain trials comparing acupuncture with placebo find a small, clinically irrelevant effect that cannot be distinguished from bias.”

Hróbjartsson and Ernst point out that acupuncture has fallen in and out of favor -- even in China. In the 1700’s acupuncture was considered "irrational and superstitious" and it was latter banned from the Imperial Medical Institute. Not until Mao Tse Tung took over China in 1949 was acupuncture revived as a form of treatment – in part because there were so few doctors in rural areas.

Acupuncture started gaining popularity in the West in the 1970’s, and medical guidelines in many developed countries now recommend it as a treatment for back pain and migraine.

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The UK’s National Health Service spends about $34 million a year paying for acupuncture treatments -- money that Hróbjartsson and Ernst believe would be better spent elsewhere.

“Health services funded by taxpayers should use their limited resources for interventions that have been proved effective,” they wrote. “After decades of research and hundreds of acupuncture pain trials, including thousands of patients, we still have no clear mechanism of action, insufficient evidence for clinically worthwhile benefit, and possible harms. Therefore, doctors should not recommend acupuncture for pain.”

Mike Cummings says there is plenty of evidence that acupuncture works. The medical director of the British Medical Acupuncture Society, Cummings started using acupuncture in his own clinical practice in 1989.

“For those patients who choose it and who respond well, it considerably improves health related quality of life, and it has much lower long term risk for them than non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs,” Cummings wrote. “It may be especially useful for chronic musculoskeletal pain and osteoarthritis in elderly patients, who are at particularly high risk from adverse drug reactions.”

According to Cummings, the main reason there have been few clinical studies of acupuncture is lack of funding.

“Is it all about money? In hospitals, acupuncture seems to incur more staffing and infrastructure costs than drug based interventions, and in an era of budget restriction, cutting services is a popular short term fix,” he wrote. “Another challenge is the lack of commercial sector interest in acupuncture, meaning that it does not benefit from the lobbying seen for patented drugs and devices.”

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 an effective treatment of chronic pain and "a reasonable referral option.”

Another large study found acupuncture significantly reduced pain severity, when combined with other treatments such as anti-inflammatory drugs.