Acupuncture works, one way or another

Story highlights

  • Researchers analyzed data from 29 clinical trials
  • They conclude the pain relief is partly real -- not the placebo effect
  • Acupuncture involves placing needles in specific locations to treat ailments
  • Some believe the majority of relief is still a placebo effect

( people with chronic pain swear by acupuncture, but skeptics of the ancient needle-based treatment have long claimed that it's little more than an elaborate placebo.

A new study published this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine appears to at least somewhat vindicate the acupuncture believers.
After re-analyzing data from 29 high-quality clinical trials dating back to the 1990s, researchers have concluded that the pain relief derived from acupuncture is partly real, in that it can't be ascribed entirely to the placebo effect.
The trials, which included roughly 18,000 people with chronic pain stemming from arthritis, headaches, or back and neck problems, all compared genuine acupuncture with one of two alternatives: treatment as usual, or "sham" acupuncture -- a counterfeit (i.e. placebo) version of the treatment in which needles are inserted unsystematically.
    Pain relief of 50% or more on a 100-point scale -- pain that drops from a 60 to a 30, say -- is a commonly used standard of effectiveness in pain research. By this measure, the study found, the effectiveness rates for real acupunture, sham acupuncture, and treatment as usual are 50%, 43%, and 30%, respectively.
    "Most clinicians and patients would say a 50% success rate versus a 30% success rate for something like intractable chronic pain is actually pretty good," says lead author Andrew J. Vickers, a statistician at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
    Acupuncture, which originated in China, involves placing needles in spe