Acupuncture is an increasingly popular treatment for a wide range of medical conditions including pain, but a dearth of studies proving its efficacy means some still doubt its usefulness.
Now, the most recent study in the analysis of acupuncture — the best to date, according to the New York Times — has found that acupuncture is an effective treatment for migraines, arthritis and chronic pain.
The study was carried out by the US National Institutes of Health, and included data gathered over about five years from close to 18,000 patients.
Lead author Dr. Andrew J. Vickers tells the Times that the study provides "firm evidence" acupuncture is an effective treatment of pain.
"This has been a controversial subject for a long time," said Vickers, "But when you try to answer the question the right way, as we did, you get very clear answers."
Acupuncture is the practice of inserting slender needles at various "acupoints" on the body. Those who administer the treatment believe that life force, or "qi", flows through meridian lines along the body, and that stimulating particular points will remove blockages and allow the qi to flow, relieving pain.
The practice is anything but new. It's been used for 2500 years in China, and the Acupuncture Foundation of Canada Institute has been teaching the practice here since 1974. According to its website, the institute trains a wide variety of medical professionals, including physicians, nurses, dentists, physiotherapists, chiropractors, occupational therapists and naturopathic doctors.
Despite its popularity and many supporters, there are still many naysayers who point to a lack of rigorous studies proving its effectiveness.
For example, a study conducted in 2009 supported the hypothesis that that pain relief from acupuncture is actually just the placebo effect. This most recent study strongly contradicts those findings.
"Acupuncture is definitely gaining more mainstream credibility, " says Angeli Chitale, naturopathic doctor at the Best of Chinese Medicine Clinic in Toronto. "Published articles in peer reviewed journals like this one will help influence public opinion about the safety and efficacy of acupuncture in Canada."
She also adds that although the results showed a favourable relationship between pain and acupuncture, the methodology used was slightly flawed, as researchers examined the same acupoints on every patient. In practice, the points stimulated must be individually tailored for maximum efficacy.
"If this study had examined individually selected points, the findings would have been even more dramatic," says Chitale. She believes the medical community may pay particular attention to this study because it addresses the treatment of chronic pain, which often stumps doctors.
"What are the alternatives?" asks Chitale. "Anti-inflamatories that cause liver damage? Highly addictive medication? These things have their pluses in the short term, but acupuncture can provide a real long-term breakthrough, and this study helps prove that."