Questioning latest study on beneficial effects of acupuncture for pain relief

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According to the results of a 2007 National Health Interview Survey, over 14 million Americans reported using acupuncture as part of their health care up from just 8 million in 2002. But while acupuncture may be growing in popularity, scientists continue to question the efficacy of this ancient practice.

For instance, a meta-analysis published in last year s April issue of the journal Pain found that acupuncture-associated pain relief was no better than placebo, and the treatment was actually accompanied by an increased risk of side effects, including infection and trauma.

Now, however, a new review published in the Archives of Internal Medicine comes to a different conclusion, finding that, compared to routine pain treatment and sham procedures, acupuncture may actually provide patients with better pain relief.

For the analysis, researchers from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and other international universities analyzed original data from 29 studies, which involved nearly 18,000 adults suffering from various types of chronic pain, including headaches, arthritis, or back, neck, and shoulder pain. Patients were randomized to receive acupuncture, sham acupuncture, or routine care such as medication or physical therapy. Based on self-reported data, patients average pain at baseline was 60 on a scale of 0 to 100. For those who underwent acupuncture, the average pain score dropped down to 30, while for patients in the sham acupuncture and routine treatment group, the measurements fell to 35 and 43, respectively.

Based on these results, the authors concluded that doctors should not rule out acupuncture as a possible treatment option for patients who struggle with pain. However, ACSH scientific advisor Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist who runs QuackWatch (a website reporting on medical scams), is a bit more skeptical of the results. Acupuncture studies, he says, often don t mirror the real world because they must follow strict research conditions.

And as Dr. Chic Schissel, another ACSH advisor, points out, The slight experimental difference between real and fake acupuncture is easily explained: The fake acupuncturists were not convincing enough to their subjects.

ACSH s Dr. Josh Bloom also questions the study s conclusions. Self-reported pain is impossible to accurately assess, he says, and if this is the only measure that the researchers relied on for their results, then their findings amount to nothing more than speculation, especially since there was no meaningful difference between the placebo and actual acupuncture groups. Maybe if they stuck a needle in your eye, it would take your mind off the back pain.