Many people with chronic pain swear by acupuncture, but skeptics of the ancient needle-based treatment have long claimed that it's little more than an elaborate placebo.
A new study published this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine appears to at least somewhat vindicate the acupuncture believers.
After re-analyzing data from 29 high-quality clinical trials dating back to the 1990s, researchers have concluded that the pain relief derived from acupuncture is partly real, in that it can't be ascribed entirely to the placebo effect.
The trials, which included roughly 18,000 people with chronic pain stemming from arthritis, headaches, or back and neck problems, all compared genuine acupuncture with one of two alternatives: treatment as usual, or "sham" acupuncture -- a counterfeit (i.e. placebo) version of the treatment in which needles are inserted unsystematically.
Pain relief of 50% or more on a 100-point scale -- pain that drops from a 60 to a 30, say -- is a commonly used standard of effectiveness in pain research. By this measure, the study found, the effectiveness rates for real acupunture, sham acupuncture, and treatment as usual are 50%, 43%, and 30%, respectively.