Acupuncture Overview

The Evidence on Acupuncture

The research so far on acupuncture has been mixed, but several studies have indicated that it's effective for treating certain conditions. Here are a few highlights of the research so far:

  • Osteoarthritis. A 2004 study in the "Annals of Internal Medicine" found that acupuncture significantly reduced pain and improved function in people with osteoarthritis of the knee that couldn't be helped by medicine. The study included 294 patients with chronic osteoarthritis. After eight weeks, participants who received acupuncture reported far less pain in their affected knee than those who didn't receive the treatment.
  • Fibromyalgia. A 2006 Mayo Clinic study of 50 patients found that acupuncture significantly improved the symptoms of fibromyalgia, a condition that causes muscle pain, fatigue, and joint stiffness.
    women doing acupuncture
    Photo courtesy of Dreamstime
    Acupuncture can help women
    with breast cancer going
    through chemotherapy.

  • Chemotherapy-induced nausea. A 2000 study in the "Journal of the American Medical Association" found that electroacupuncture plus an anti-nausea medication relieved nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy better than medication alone. The study included 104 women with breast cancer who had been given high-dose chemotherapy. Women in the electroacupuncture group had a third of the vomiting episodes of those in the medication group. An earlier analysis of 11 studies also found acupuncture to be effective for nausea related to chemotherapy, as well as surgery and pregnancy.
  • In-vitro fertilization. A trio of 2006 studies in the "Fertility and Sterility Journal" suggested that acupuncture may help women who are undergoing in-vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures. When women had acupuncture before and after embryo transfer, they were anywhere from eight percent to 18 percent more likely to get pregnant than women who had sham acupuncture (outlined below) or no treatment. The only caveat -- one of the studies found that women who had acupuncture were slightly more likely to miscarry.
  • Bladder control problems. A report in the July 2005 issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology found that acupuncture may relieve overactive bladder. Out of a group of 74 women, those who were treated with acupuncture for bladder control had 30 percent fewer urgent trips to the bathroom, compared with only 3 percent fewer trips in the group that received sham acupuncture.

Despite the favorable research, some experts caution that it's difficult to test acupuncture in a clinical setting. In part, this is because any valid clinical study will include a control group that is given a sham treatment (placebo). In the case of acupuncture, the placebo consists of needles inserted in random points, rather than at actual pressure points. This can lead to what's called the placebo effect -- when study participants believe that they've received the real treatment and expect their symptoms to improve. As evidence, a 2006 study in the "British Medical Journal" found that acupuncture reduced the number of days patients suffered from tension headaches, but sham acupuncture in the study had almost the exact same results.

Also, the quality of the research conducted so far on acupuncture hasn't been consistent. Many of the studies in the past have been small, and have focused on short-term, rather than long-term results. Larger controlled trials are needed to truly prove acupuncture's effectiveness, some experts say.