Of course this research comes as no surprise, but it’s nice to read that the authors of a meta-analysis concluded that “acupuncture provides more relief from various types of chronic pain than does usual care and should be considered a valid therapeutic option.” Research based on my patient base suggests the same results.

During my monthly call in radio show, people always have questions on pain. Whether it be neck, shoulder, back or migraine pain, many want to know if there are other options to hydrocodone, topomax, or even extra strength tylenol.

Part of the problem with acupuncture research is that results show benefits but the mechanism of action is very hard to define or measure. In Western style research, scientists like to be able to explain how and why the treatment works. The difficulty in part is trying to measure an abstract form of energy, we can Qi (chi). You can feel Qi, but cannot readily see it or measure it beyond feeling for it in the pulses. In spite of the mechanism of action not being completely understood, results of this study showed that acupuncture treatment for pain relief was statistically better when compared to sham acupuncture and even higher for no acupuncture.

Many researchers like to attribute the beneficial results of acupuncture due to placebo effect. To challenge that point, I often refer to veterinary acupuncture which started many years ago on race horses who were lame. More often than not, the horses and now dogs and cats, move better after being treated with acupuncture. No matter how lovable and smart our animals are, they do not have the capacity to fake it (to please their owners). Either they are limping or they are not after a treatment. The results speak for itself.

Because it is so difficult to define the mechanism of action, many researchers continue to report that treatments remain “highly controversial.” But to be fair, many results are inconclusive due to poor study parameters such as too few subjects and inconsistency of quality and reliability of studies. But it’s also worth considering whether positive results of studies should be disregarded solely due to uncertainty as to mechanisms of action.

This study however, included almost 18,000 subjects and “conducted an individual patient data meta-analysis based exclusively on high quality randomized trials that their findings should be considered “both clinically and scientifically important.” In addition, their finding of “true acupuncture having significantly greater effect than the sham procedure indicates that the effects of the procedure do extend beyond placebo.” They conclude that this is “of major importance for clinical practice,” meaning that acupuncture should be considered “a reasonable referral option for patients with chronic pain.”

Dr. Avins, one of the authors of the study wrote: “The ultimate question is: does this intervention work (or, more completely, do its benefits outweigh its risks and justify its cost)?” “For acupuncture, the current meta-analysis offers “some robust evidence” that acupuncture does provide greater chronic pain relief than usual care, mechanisms of effect aside.”

For many of my patients, this research will be consistent with their experience. But Chinese medicine will only be considered a valid form of medicine with medical doctors when clinically solid studies show clear benefit. More and more studies are being conducted that show thousands of years of medicine from China as being a consistently effective and safe option of treatment for many health concerns. If you are interested in reading more research on acupuncture, you can look at studies from the National Institutes of Health Complementary and Alternative Medicine Office.

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