A 2012 study adds new information to a long-simmering debate: Can acupuncture relieve the chronic pain of conditions such as osteoarthritis?

The ancient medical practice of inserting fine needles into carefully selected points on the skin has gained acceptance by many physicians in the United States, yet the research on acupuncture’s pain-fighting benefits is murky. Some studies suggest that it confers superior relief when compared to common treatments such as pain relievers, while other scientific trials have found that acupuncture offers little or no benefit. 

In an effort to clarify this fuzzy picture, a team of researchers led by scientist Andrew J. Vickers, PhD, attending research methodologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, conducted a meta-analysis of 29 studies on acupuncture for the treatment of neck and back pain, chronic headache, and osteoarthritis, or OA. Other teams have conducted meta-analyses of acupuncture for treating pain in the past, but Vickers’ approach was unique in an important way: Instead of lumping all study results together, he and his colleagues painstakingly assessed each individual patient’s outcome. In theory, that should give a more accurate view of how effectively acupuncture treats OA and other painful conditions. Their findings appear online in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

"This is a much superior way to do this kind of analysis," says Andrew L. Avins, MD, a clinical professor of medicine who studies pain and other health issues at the University of California, San Francisco. In an editorial that accompanies Vickers meta-analysis, Dr. Avins calls the paper "a fresh contribution to the debate" and writes, "methodologically, the authors' approach was sound."

After analyzing data for nearly 18,000 patients. Vickers and his colleagues found that people in pain who had acupuncture felt significantly better than others who weren’t treated or who only received “usual care,” such as recommendations to take pain relievers or general advice about managing symptoms. Vickers’ team also found that real acupuncture is more effective than fake, or placebo, acupuncture – but only slightly so. Researchers often study the effectiveness of therapies by comparing them to fake treatments (such as sugar pills) in order to account for the placebo effect – the phenomenon in which a patient may report feeling better simply due to his or her expectations about receiving treatment. Vickers and his colleagues found that 50 percent of acupuncture patients said their pain improved by half or more, compared to 42.5 percent of patients receiving placebo acupuncture, which may be performed several ways, such as using special telescoping needles that don’t penetrate the skin or by randomly inserting real needles.