The Science of Acupuncture

January 19, 2021 Joe Brady

Discover Magazine article discusses the science of acupuncture

Although acupuncture has been around for 3,000 years and is often used today to treat pain in both people and animals, there are still research questions to be answered, including whether it matters where needles are placed on the body.

In a recent article in the magazine Discover, Dr. Helene Langevin, Director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), explains how her experiences treating pain patients led to her interest in acupuncture research. She also talks about why she thinks there’s a need for a reliable database on acupuncture point locations to help resolve the debate about needle placement.

Does Acupuncture Really Work?

Here’s what science does (and doesn’t say) about how the ancient technique works to alleviate pain and other ailments.

By Jeanne Erdmann Discover Magazine, December 21, 2020 3:00 PM

Although not every person (or animal) responds to the technique, you’d be hard-pressed to find a condition that hasn’t been studied in connection with acupuncture, including low back pain, neck pain, knee pain from osteoarthritis, carpal tunnel, infertility, migraines, bedwetting, ADHD, nausea and vomiting.

The body responds to acupuncture depending on where the needle is placed and how the area is stimulated, says Chi-Tsai Tang, a rehabilitation physician in the department of orthopedics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO.

Read the article in Discover Magazine

Evidence map of Acupuncture

The results for the clinical indication Pain are presented in the bubble plot and a text summary below. The bubble plot summarizes the results of 59 systematic reviews for 21 distinct indications relevant to the outcome pain [search date: March 2013].

The figure provides a broad visual overview of the evidence base. The bubble plot depicts the estimated research volume based on the number of acupuncture RCTs included in the largest review summarizing the clinical indication, the estimated treatment effect of acupuncture compared to passive control, and the confidence in the effect, judging from published systematic reviews. Estimates of the size of the treatment effect based on specific individual reviews as well as reasons for classifying the evidence base as inconclusive are reported in the narrative synthesis. The evidence map used the clinical topics as addressed in existing reviews, and individual research studies may have contributed to a number of included reviews and clinical indications. All 3 depicted dimensions (literature size, effect, and confidence) are estimates and can only provide a broad overview of the evidence base.

Legend: The bubble plot shows an estimate of the evidence base for pain-related indications judging from systematic reviews and recent large RCTs. The plot depicts the estimated size of the literature (y-axis, number of RCTs included in largest review), the estimated effect (x-axis), and the confidence in the estimate (bubble size).

Read the article

Archives of Internal Medicine: Review of High-Quality Clinical Trials

The best review done to date and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine systematic included 29 high quality, randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of acupuncture for chronic pain. This meta-analysis looked at individual patient data on a total of 17,922 patients. and found that acupuncture was superior to both sham and no-acupuncture control for back pain, neck pain, osteoarthritis and headache (P < .001). The review found acupuncture to be effective for the treatment of chronic pain and significant differences between true and sham acupuncture indicate that acupuncture is more than just a placebo and is a reasonable referral option for patients with chronic pain.

Acupuncture for Chronic Pain Individual Patient Data Meta-analysis, Andrew J. Vickers, DPhil; Angel M. Cronin, MS; Alexandra C. Maschino, BS; George Lewith, MD; Hugh MacPherson, PhD; Nadine E. Foster, DPhil; Karen J. Sherman, PhD; Claudia M. Witt, MD; Klaus Linde, MD

Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(19):1444-1453. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2012.3654.