I've known lots of people who swear by acupuncture for pain—some who say it alleviates acute back pain attacks, others who've said regular needles sessions come close to curing their chronic migraines.
But western doctors usually don't recommend acupuncture, because the scientific evidence for it has been inconclusive. One study that made headlines a few years ago found that "sham" acupuncture—in which the needles are placed in random spots, not at the energy meridians mapped out by Chinese medicine—was just as effective as the real kind. This gave doubters the chance to say that acupuncture's only power was the placebo effect, and maybe the benefits of relaxing in a quiet room for an hour or so.
So there's vindicating news for those who know first hand that those needles provide more than a placebo effect: A new analysis of 29 randomized controlled trials, which included nearly 18,000 subjects, finds that acupuncture appears better than sham acupuncture (and than no acupuncture) for the treatment of chronic pain. People who received acupuncture for pain in their backs and necks, for osteoarthritis and for chronic headaches all reported significantly less pain as a result of real acupuncture than they did with the sham acupuncture. However, the sham acupuncture also resulted in pain reduction, just not by as much.
We found acupuncture to be superior to both no-acupuncture control and sham acupuncture for the treatment of chronic pain," said the study's authors in a statement. "Although the data indicate that acupuncture is more than a placebo, the differences between true and sham acupuncture are relatively modest, suggesting that factors in addition to the specific effects of needling are important contributors to therapeutic effects."
The research was published in the respected Archives of Internal Medicine and was conducted by a research at New York's esteemed Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.