(NaturalNews) Acupuncture outperformed both placebo and conventional pain therapies - including pharmaceutical drugs - in a new study conducted by researchers from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York from numerous universities in Germany and England. The study was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
The findings "provide the most robust evidence to date that acupuncture is a reasonable referral option," the authors wrote.
Acupuncture is an important part of traditional Chinese medicine, a holistic healthcare system that focuses on both preventive and curative care. In traditional acupuncture, long, thin needles are inserted into specific bodily locations, known as meridians, in patterns indicated by the patient's specific symptoms and needs. Traditionally, acupuncture is combined with other therapies such as dietary changes, medicinal herbs and energetics practices such as Quigong.
The use of acupuncture has become more popular in the West as scientific studies have continued to affirm its helpfulness, particularly for the relief of pain. It has been used as a treatment by the U.S. military and is even covered by some private insurance plans, although not by Medicare. The California Legislature recently recommended acupuncture as one of the therapies to be covered by all health insurance plans in the state, beginning in 2014.
Studies have also shown acupuncture to be helpful in treating conditions other than pain, such as easing addiction-related cravings and even causing improvement in patients suffering from psychological or mood disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. But scientists remain divided over whether acupuncture provides any more benefit than a placebo, which was one of the questions the current study was designed to examine.
Better than drugs, and safer
The researchers conducted a meta-analysis on data from 29 prior studies involving nearly 18,000 adults. The research was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a federal institution, as well as the nonprofit Samueli Institute, which supports research into alternative medicine.
The original studies had examined patients with chronic pain from a variety of causes, including neck, shoulder and back pain, arthritis, and recurring headaches. Participants in every study had been randomly assigned to treatment either from acupuncture, standard treatments such as drugs and physical therapy, or fake acupuncture that inserted needles at points other than the traditional meridians.
In the meta-analysis, participants' pain was described using a scale from zero to 100. Prior to any intervention, the average participant's pain measured 60. The average pain after conventional Western treatment was 43, compared with 35 among patients who received fake acupuncture and 30 among those who received real acupuncture. The researchers noted that the difference between acupuncture and conventional treatments was strong and significant, while the difference between real and fake acupuncture was strong enough to be suggestive, but not conclusive.
In a commentary published in the same issue of the journal, researcher and physician Andrew Avins of the University of California-San Francisco noted that the study was stronger than previous meta-analyses, because the authors examined the original data from the pooled studies and not just their conclusions. Avins was not involved in the study.
Avins noted that the question of whether acupuncture works via placebo or via some other, unknown mechanism may be missing the point. Because acupuncture is an effective, low-risk therapy, the best course may be to offer it to patients now and worry about why it works later.
"Perhaps a more productive strategy at this point would be to provide whatever benefits we can for our patients, while we continue to explore more carefully all mechanisms of healing," he wrote.
A typical acupuncture session costs between $60 and $100.