Acupuncture is one of the oldest forms of medical treatments; it goes all the way back to ancient China (possibly as early as 6000 BCE). Many advocates for traditional medicine have argued that acupuncture is the best cure for a wide variety of illnesses, including cancer and fertility problems. Unfortunately, there has been no strong evidence to support those claims. Perhaps the best evidence for acupuncture, although still quite weak, has been for pain control.
However, a recent meta-analysis (an analysis of a number of different studies) by researchers from Germany and from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City adds some support for the use of acupuncture for chronic pain. They analyzed 29 studies that compared acupuncture to no acupuncture or acupuncture to sham-acupuncture (inserting acupuncture needles at the wrong points). They published the analysis in October 2012 and the study was highlighted in the March 2014 JAMA Clinical Evidence Synopsis.
The results showed that acupuncture was useful for the management of musculoskeletal and shoulder pain. The differences were much more noticeable in the studies that looked at acupuncture vs. no acupuncture than they were in the studies that looked at acupuncture vs. sham-acupuncture. This suggests that many people who said they felt relief from pain were experiencing the placebo effect. This occurs when people experience a positive effect that can't be linked to the treatment given. However, there were also statistically significant differences‚ which researchers look for in studies—and these suggest that acupuncture holds promise as a tool for relief of some chronic pain.
Two important caveats about this study: First, pain is very subjective, so it is difficult to measure data the way you can measure lab results. Second, the participants and researchers were not always what's referred to as blinded. That means many participants knew whether they were receiving a real treatment or a placebo treatment and that the researchers who worked on the studies were also aware whether they were performing real treatments or sham procedures. Without adequate blinding, results may not be accurate. Therefore, it is difficult to wholeheartedly recommend acupuncture until we have double-blinded studies (when neither participants nor researchers know who is getting a real treatment and who is getting a placebo).
The bottom line is that if done by a licensed acupuncturist who uses sterile needles, there’s little harm in trying acupuncture (provided you already have a diagnosis as to why you’re having pain in the first place). Acupuncture can be helpful for the management of pain in some people, even if the relief may be caused by the placebo effect.