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Doctor, I have chronic pain, should I try acupuncture?

In people with chronic pain in the back, neck, or shoulder or osteoarthritis or chronic headaches, acupuncture reduced pain more than sham acupuncture or usual care.

What is the evidence?


Acupuncture vs sham acupuncture for reducing pain a minimum of 4 weeks after the first treatment

Location of Pain´╗┐´╗┐Number of StudiesSeverity of Pain
Headache5small reduction in pain
Back or neck pain10moderate reduction in pain
Osteoarthritis9moderate reduction in pain
Shoulder pain4moderate reduction in pain

What kind of study was this?

This was a systematic review and meta-analysis of 39 studies published up to December 31, 2015.

Who? The studies included 20,827 people who had musculoskeletal pain (back or neck), shoulder pain, chronic headache or pain due to osteoarthritis. The pain had to be present for at least 4 weeks.

What? The reviewers included studies that compared acupuncture with sham acupuncture or with usual care.



Sham acupuncture or Usual care

Acupuncture: technique of inserting thin needles through the skin and pushing them down to a certain level at specific sites on the body to reduce pain or other symptoms

The included studies used Chinese acupuncture, Western acupuncture or a combination of both.

The number of treatments varied across the studies (average of 6-10 once-weekly sessions lasting for approximately 30 minutes)

Sham acupuncture: needles used but not with the correct technique

Usual care: treatment without needles such as physiotherapy or medications to reduce pain and inflammation (varied across studies)

Why was this research done?

Acupuncture has been practised in some parts of the world for thousands of years. However, some health care providers question whether it is effective at treating conditions like chronic pain. It is thought that a patient's belief that acupuncture works may be responsible for the positive results experienced by some patients and not the treatment itself - this is called the placebo effect. The authors of this review collected data from 39 individual studies comparing acupuncture with either sham acupuncture or usual care. When combined together, these studies provide a more accurate picture of the likelihood that acupuncture is effective in reducing chronic pain.

This Evidence Summary is based on the following article:

Vickers AJ, Vertosick EA, Lewith G, et al. Acupuncture for Chronic Pain: Update of an Individual Patient Data Meta-Analysis. J Pain. 2018 May;19(5):455-474. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2017.11.005. Epub 2017 Dec 2. PubMed

Published: Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Please note that the information contained herein is not to be interpreted as an alternative to medical advice from a professional healthcare provider. If you have any questions about any medical matter, you should consult your professional healthcare providers, and should never delay seeking medical advice, disregard medical advice or discontinue medication based on information provided here.