Acupuncture – Can It Be Utilised For Long-Term Pain Management?

The ability to aid chronic pain is an area of large clinical significance, especially since alleviating pain not only helps with symptoms of the primary conditions such as osteoarthritis, but may also have large, widespread effects on patient lifestyle. For example, 25% of chronic pain sufferers lose long term paid employment due to their condition and may lead to devastating impacts on both socio-economic status and mental health as a consequence (1). Currently, 14 million individuals in England are estimated to be living with chronic pain; and with the burden of chronic pain expected to increase due to our ever aging population, further research into pain management remains imperative (2).

A recent meta-analysis found that acupuncture provides effective, clinically significant pain relief for those suffering from chronic pain; particularly osteoarthritis, headache, musculo-skeletal, and specific shoulder pain (3).

The analysis, published in the American Pain Journal, composed of data from 39 trials consisting of a total of 20,827 participants. Here, the effects of acupuncture was compared against lack of treatment and sham acupuncture. (Sham acupuncture is a valid scientific tool in determining the effects of acupuncture in high quality studies. During sham acupuncture, the full effects of a true acupuncture treatment are nullified by several methods usually the prevention of actual needle insertion or insertion of needles at random points rather than the targeted acupressure points that correspond to a specific issue your acupuncturist is treating i.e. shoulder tension.  By comparing results of “true” acupuncture and sham acupuncture, this allows researchers to determine the presence or absence of the placebo effect.)

The results found that true acupuncture yielded highly statistically significant improved pain relief compared to both those receiving no treatment and sham acupuncture, with the decrease in pain unable to be solely explained by the placebo effect. These results are concordant with other previous studies indicating that acupuncture is clinically relevant in pain relief compared to no clinical control.  Furthermore, the beneficial effects of acupuncture were found to be long lasting with only a small decrease (15%) in treatment effect after a year.

In conclusion, the authors postulate that this research further strengthens the notion that acupuncture remains a clinically viable option for referral for chronic pain. Personally, I believe the identification of significant, non-placebo effects of acupuncture within such a large cohort provides valuable insight into the argument to integrate acupuncture within a multidisciplinary treatment regime for chronic pain where appropriate. Interestingly, the study also found that acupuncture had higher than average pain relief specifically for upper musculo-skeletal pain, therefore further study into this area is warranted and may provide some novel insights into its mechanism.

Photo by Rodolfo Clix from Pexels

Please note, all information presented within this blog is not a substitution for medical advice from your doctor.  Consult your doctor regarding any medical issues and appropriate treatment.

R. Marsden

R. Marsden

As a recently graduated Human Bioscience BSc student, I have a keen interest in evidence based science and the study of disease ranging from study of the molecular basis to the more visible systemic effects, and how this may impact daily life. Alongside several other areas, acupuncture remains an avid interest of mine and I enjoy evaluating current, non-biased research to pass onto this bitesized blog. 

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