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Pain: Acupuncture, What Works and What Does Not

Chronic and acute pain is consistently the number one reason why people seek alternative medicine care. In the United States, acupuncture has found its greatest acceptance and success in the management of a wide variety of painful conditions, especially musculoskeletal pain. There seems to be an overwhelming amount of evidence for its efficacy.

Following are some of the most well designed studies on pain.

  • In a 1976 study by Dr. Jorma Laitinen of low back pain, comparing acupuncture to the conventional therapy of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) for pain control, acupuncture achieved moderate to complete pain relief in 58 percent of patients, compared to 46 percent of patients undergoing TENS therapy.

  • For a 1982 study by Dr. Seppo Y. T. Junnila of osteoarthritis patients, 50 percent of acupuncture patients became much improved or symptom-free, compared to 31 percent of patients taking medication. In another arthritis study, 25 percent of patients scheduled for knee surgery were able to avoid surgery after a course of acupuncture.

  • With chronic neck pain, patients reported a 68 percent decrease in mean hours of pain, compared to a decrease of 0 percent in untreated patients, in a 1982 study by Dr. Richard W. Coan.

  • A 1983 review by Lewith and Machin of studies showed that acupuncture provided short-term relief to 50 to 80 percent of patients with acute and chronic pain. Chronic musculoskeletal pain responded well, and so did acute musculoskeletal lesions, such as bruises, sprains, and strains.

  • One 1983 study by Dr. E. Ahonen and colleagues on tension headaches indicated that acupuncture was more effective in relieving pain than treatment by physicians applying physiotherapy.

  • From a 1984 study by Dr. Leng Loh of forty-eight migraine patients, 59 percent reported benefits from acupuncture, compared to 25 percent who benefited from drug therapy.

  • In a 1990 study by Chen of thirty-six acupuncture patients with carpal tunnel syndrome, all but one attained excellent short-term relief of pain. In the study's long-term follow-up, twenty-four of the thirty-six patients showed 2.5 to 8.5 years of pain relief.

  • Based on a 1991 study by Johansson of muscular pain of the face and head, acupuncture was as effective as conventional treatment with physiotherapy.

  • Concluding a sophisticated 1994 pain study by Dr. Jurgen Hesse and Dr. Henrik Simonsen of acupuncture versus drug therapy, acupuncture was equally effective, with notably fewer side effects.

  • Based on a 1987 study by well-known clinician and acupuncture practitioner Dr. Joseph M. Helms, founding President of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, on painful menstruation, or dysmenorrhea, 91 percent of patients showed improvement, compared to 36 percent of patients in a sham acupuncture group.


Acupuncture may not be equally helpful in controlling pain in some populations. A five-year study of 348 pain patients concluded that acupuncture was less effective for pain control in the elderly, in patients with a psychiatric history, in patients taking high doses of analgesics, and in those with long-standing pain.

Pain is a major problem for the U.S. health care system. It is estimated that 10 percent of all Americans have pain conditions that are present for over one hundred days a year. Therefore, treatments that are less expensive and relatively effective, such as acupuncture therapy, are extremely valuable.




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Copyright © 2000 by Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier, Inc.
Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, New York.

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