Does Acupuncture Work? A Quick Review of the Latest Evidence

Hansa Bhargava, MD


July 05, 2017

I'm Dr Hansa Bhargava, a medical advisor for Medscape and a practicing physician. Let's talk about the benefits of acupuncture.

Acupuncture, a staple of traditional Chinese medicine, which is becoming more popular in the Western world, uses very fine needles to stimulate various pressure points around the body and re-shift the body's balance of energy. The practice is also thought to improve blood flow and increase levels of the body's natural pain-relieving chemicals.

But does acupuncture work? Well, according to the research, it's more effective for some conditions than for others. Take pain, for example. A 2012 meta-analysis in the Archives of Internal Medicine concluded that the practice was moderately effective for chronic neck, lower back, and arthritic knee pain.[1] A Cochrane review found some evidence that acupuncture may relieve pain during an acute migraine episode and may modestly reduce frequency.[2] Another Cochrane report concluded that the practice is effective for treating chronic tension-type headaches.[3]

For other conditions, the benefits of acupuncture may be more limited. Though some studies find that it modestly improves quality of life in people with allergies, it may not be the most cost-effective solution for allergic rhinitis.[4] Acupuncture may help with cancer, especially cancer-induced nausea and vomiting.[5] And if used in conjunction with opioids for cancer pain, it can reduce the opioid dose needed.[6]

Other potential applications are still being investigated. Newly emerging evidence suggests that the practice might be useful for some people with amnestic mild cognitive impairment, a condition that can precede dementia. A meta-analysis found that people who got this treatment scored better on cognitive tests than those who didn't receive it,[7] but further study is needed to confirm a benefit.

Acupuncture is generally safe for your patients to try, provided that they see a licensed and trained practitioner.


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