Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
Acupuncture didn’t make headlines in the United States until the mid-1990s when the Food and Drug Administration upgraded acupuncture needles from experimental status to full-fledged medical devices. Then the National Institutes of Health found evidence of acupuncture as an effective treatment for nausea caused by anesthesia and chemotherapy, as well as postoperative dental pain and a number of other pain-related conditions, either alone or in combination with other therapies.
But does acupuncture really work? It’s tough to measure Eastern medicine by Western standards. Double-blind studies, the gold standard of Western medicine, are hard to apply to acupuncture. But this hasn’t kept scientists from finding creative ways to test acupuncture’s potency. For example, a German study, published last year in the British Medical Journal (June 2001), weighed acupuncture against massage in the treatment of chronic neck pain. Over three weeks, 177 volunteers received five 30-minute sessions of massage, needle acupuncture, or fake acupuncture (researchers used an inactivated laser acupuncture pen in lieu of needles). Afterward, 57 percent in the needle acupuncture group reported considerably less pain. In comparison, only 25 percent of those who received massage saw an improvement.
The authors concluded that acupuncture is “a safe form of treatment for people with chronic neck pain and offers clinical advantages over conventional massage.” In another clinically controlled study, Italian researchers enrolled 120 migraine sufferers from four public health centers to compare the benefits of acupuncture with those of drug therapy. Over the course of a year, volunteers were either given a maximum of three courses of 10 acupuncture treatments twice a week, with a one-week break in between, or varying rounds of conventional drug therapy. The results, published in the Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine (2000; 20:3), showed that at six months the acupuncture group had an 80 percent drop in migraine symptoms, while their pilltaking counterparts reported a 46 percent dip. But perhaps the best news was the acupuncture group reported no side effects, whereas more than 75 percent of those in drug therapy had troublesome reactions, ranging from diarrhea to shortness of breath.
Both studies are reminders that there may be more to those tiny needles than meets the eye, particularly for chronic pain sufferers. “Acupuncture has a bright future,” says Marshall Sager, D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathy) and president of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, a group that trains physicians in the art of acupuncture. “We just need to educate the public, insurance companies, and medical community.”