Acupuncture has a very long history of being utilized for many disease conditions. But does it work and is there any evidence to back that up?

I started my investigation into acupuncture at The Cochrane Collaboration, which is a conglomeration of the best evidence available for the physician and patient to help make treatment decisions.

I confined my investigation into the following conditions: Low Back Pain, Neck Pain, Shoulder Pain, Joint arthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis . Acupuncture for Headaches and Fibromyalgia was not evaluated.

The American Academy of Medical Acupuncture (2004) states: “In the United States, acupuncture has its greatest success and acceptance in the treatment of musculoskeletal pain.” , noting: “Most of these indications are supported by textbooks or at least 1 journal article. However, definitive conclusions based on research findings are rare because the state of acupuncture research is poor but improving.”

So it's well known that the overall state of acupuncture research is poor, but that musculoskeletal pain benefits the most from the treatment.

Here's the various conditions and what The Cochrane Collaboration states about each.

Low Back Pain: 35 studies were reviewed. The studies were inconclusive regarding acute low back pain results from acupuncture. However, for chronic low back pain, acupuncture was more effective than no treatment or sham treatment in the short term. Also, the data suggested that acupuncture may be a useful adjunct to other therapies for chronic low back pain. This is similar to chiropractic treatment in efficiency, but the opposite. Chiropractic manipulation works well for acute low back pain, and its efficiency in chronic low back pain is questionable.

Neck Disorders : 10 studies were reviewed looking at acupuncture for chronic neck pain – in this case pain over 6 weeks duration.

Individuals with chronic neck pain who received acupuncture reported, on average, better pain relief immediately after treatment and in the short-term than those who received sham treatments.

Individuals with chronic neck pain with symptoms radiating to the arms who received acupuncture reported, on average, better pain relief in the short-term than those who were on a waiting list. Bottom Line: There is moderate evidence to support acupuncture for chronic neck pain (over 6 weeks.)

Peripheral Joint Osteoarthritis : 16 trials were reviewed looking at acupuncture for knee and / or hip arthritis. Results showed statistically significant benefits in pain relief for both hip and knee. However, the benefit was something due to placebo effect. So it worked in the studies, but how much was real vs. placebo was questionable.

Shoulder pain : 9 studies were reviewed. The conclusion was that there may be short term benefit with respect to pain and function. However, the evidence was not first rate and Cochrane mentioned a definite need for further well designed clinical trials.

Rheumatoid Arthritis : Only 2 studies were reviewed. From the little evidence available, acupuncture did not appear to improve the symptoms of RA.

It's apparent from the Cochrane review of acupuncture for these conditions that it does in fact work at least for short term improvement except for Rheumatoid Arthritis.

Summary :

Acupuncture therefore represents another treatment that is useful to have in the armamentarium for pain management.