Acupuncture has been used to treat a wide variety of conditions for over 2000 years. This outstanding track record means that this ancient therapy has been tried and tested millions of times over the years. But has acupuncture been proven to work scientifically? Let’s take a look.
Problems in Acupuncture Research
Before we discuss whether acupuncture has been proven to work, let’s take a quick look at acupuncture research and why it is not as straightforward as it seems.
There are several different problems with acupuncture research. The first is that the gold standard for clinical research is a type of trial known as a double-blind, randomized, controlled trial. In order to understand what this is and why it poses a problem for acupuncture research, let’s look at the name in reverse.
A controlled trial means that there are at least two different treatment groups. One of these will be the genuine treatment, whereas the other will be a placebo. This is simple to achieve when testing a drug as it is easy to produce two tablets which look the same but contain different ingredients. However, it is more difficult to do this with acupuncture, a therapy which uses needles to pierce the skin.
Some researchers have tried to get around this issue by using something known as ‘sham acupuncture.’ Sham acupuncture either involves placing needles at random sites other than acupuncture points, or placing a needle on the surface of the skin, but not piercing it.
Both of these options pose problems. First of all, placing a needle anywhere in the body is likely to cause some kind of reaction, even if it is not as pronounced as a genuine acupuncture point. Secondly, some acupuncture traditions such as Japanese acupuncture actually use non-insertive techniques for many patients. This means that neither type of sham acupuncture is a true placebo.
A randomized trial is simply a trial where participants are allocated randomly to receive genuine treatment or placebo. This is no problem for acupuncture as randomization can be performed easily for any kind of trial.
However, the biggest hurdle for acupuncture research is the double-blind aspect. Double-blind means that neither patient nor researcher knows who is receiving the genuine treatment and who is receiving a placebo. This is easy enough when testing drugs, but for acupuncture, it is pretty much impossible. Even if you can fool the patient, how can you fool the person inserting the needles?
All of these problems mean that it is very difficult to prove whether acupuncture works or not using conventional methods. To add even more confusion, clinical trials usually demand that the researchers use a prescription of points which are the same for every patient, every time. This is just not something that would ever happen in a real-life clinic!
Has Acupuncture Been Proven to Work?
Despite all of its problems, there is a great deal of research available on acupuncture for various conditions. However, due to the issues discussed above, it can often be inconclusive. That said, there are some conditions where the evidence is overwhelmingly positive.
Here are some of the conditions for which acupuncture has been proven to work according to systematic reviews of clinical trials:
- Generalized pain
- Lower back pain
- Knee osteoarthritis pain
- Tension type headaches and migraines
- IVF support
One thing that all of these systematic reviews have in common is that they identify the need for better methodologies in acupuncture research. Until this happens, some people will never consider acupuncture to be truly ‘proven to work.’ However, millions of satisfied patients would disagree!