A new report, published in the National Institutes for Health Research Journal, provides what the authors call “the most substantive evidence to date on acupuncture and its potential impact.” The studies included in the report provide compelling evidence for the use of acupuncture in the treatment of both chronic pain and depression. Their results address prior uncertainties regarding the practice as a medical treatment.
“The programme of research found that acupuncture was more effective than usual care and sham acupuncture for chronic pain, that it was one of the more clinically effective physical therapies for osteoarthritis and that it showed benefits in the treatment of depression.”
Acupuncture is widely used around the world, commonly for the treatment of chronic pain. More recently, it has been added to the list of non-pharmacological treatments for depression, for which it has shown some promise. Despite the common and widespread use for both of these conditions, researchers remain uncertain regarding the effectiveness of acupuncture, given poor quality or lack of evidence in both of these domains. Interest in acupuncture as a treatment for depression has surged, as the effectiveness of antidepressants has been questioned, and individuals have voiced concern about their side-effects.
One of the studies’ aims was to understand the clinical effectiveness of acupuncture for chronic pain. For this report the researchers conducted a systematic review of the literature, compiling data from twenty-nine trials, which had just fewer than 18,000 participants. In addition, the researchers conducted a randomized control trial (RCT) of acupuncture treatment for depression with 755 participants.
Overall, the researchers found that acupuncture was not only a suitable option for the treatment of chronic pain but that it was also significantly more effective than a placebo. In addition, it was more cost effective than other compared treatments. Acupuncture was found to be effective for chronic pain across different areas including head, back, neck, and knee.
“In an RCT of acupuncture or counseling compared with usual care for depression, in which half the patients were also experiencing comorbid pain, we found acupuncture and counseling to be clinically effective and acupuncture to be cost-effective,” the researchers wrote.
In their RCT the researchers found that those patients who received acupuncture experienced significant reductions in depression symptoms compared to those who received just standard care. They found the same with the participants who received counseling. However, those receiving acupuncture had similar gains with less associated financial costs.
The study not only provided robust evidence regarding the use of acupuncture for chronic pain and depression, it also quashed any doubts regarding the potential placebo effects of acupuncture. By furthering their research aims to include cost effectiveness, they also made a substantiated argument for potential discussions around policy and health.
“By comparing acupuncture in an unbiased way with other ‘competing’ physical or psychological therapies, we are providing the very evidence on clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness that is of most value to policy-makers and commissioners.”
MacPherson, H., Vickers, A., Bland, M., Torgerson, D., Corbett, M., Spackman, E., … & Manca, A. (2017). Acupuncture for chronic pain and depression in primary care: A programme of research. National Institutes for Health Research. (Abstract)