Pain is our body’s alarm signal, so its cause should always be investigated. It can vary in nature from the dull ache of an arthritic hip, to the almost intolerable electric shocks of trigeminal neuralgia. Tolerance varies between individuals, but is lower if we are tired, stressed or without other distractions. Some forms are responsive to simple painkillers, whilst others demand stronger, prescription-only drugs, the side-effects of which can be troublesome.
Whatever the pain, acupuncture is a gentle and safe treatment approach. It may also help with any consequences of your pain such as disturbed sleep, depression or loss of appetite.
Below you will find a wide range of research into acupuncture for pain. The studies cover chronic pain from a variety of causes, plus pain relief in hospital A&E, ICU and post-operative settings. There is also trigeminal neuralgia, phantom limb pain, studies with military veterans, and a look at how acupuncture could be part of the solution to dependence on opioid drugs. Pain from shingles, multiple sclerosis and cancer are covered, as is dental pain. Note that some specific types of pain eg neck or back pain, come under their own headings elsewhere.
An American team, part funded by the US Government’s National Institutes of Health, has shown that acupuncture for chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, offers significant improvements over usual care. The pilot randomised trial recruited 75 patients who had received at least three months of chemotherapy. They compared eight weeks of acupuncture, with both sham acupuncture and usual care. Compared with usual care, real acupuncture had the greatest effect on pain, tingling and numbness.
From baseline to week 8, the mean pain reduction in the real acupuncture group was -1.75, that for sham acupuncture was -0.91, and that for usual care was -0.19. At 12 week follow-up, real acupuncture maintained virtually all of its improvement, whilst sham had dropped back to -0.34.
A randomised trial in the US has shown that for both individual and group sessions given in primary care settings, acupuncture helps pain and improves physical function in patients with chronic musculoskeletal conditions. Researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine enrolled 779 adults, mean age 55, attending six inner city primary care centres in the New York Bronx district for neck, back or osteoarthritis pain. Participants received weekly individualised acupuncture on either a group or one-to-one basis, for 12 weeks, in addition to usual care.
At the outset, 60% of participants reported poor to fair health, whilst 37% were unable to work due to disability. In the Bronx, nearly one third of the population lives below the poverty line.
After 12 weeks, 37% of patients in the individual treatment arm, and 30% of those in the group treatment arm, had a greater than 30% improvement in pain interference. Pain severity showed clinically meaningful improvements in over 30% of patients, and global physical health improved in approximately 60% of patients. Opiate use declined in the individual arm, but not in the group arm.
The research team concluded that their results demonstrate that individual and group acupuncture can be offered safely in the community health centre setting, that acceptability to patients and clinicians is very high, and that a substantial proportion of patients with chronic pain will have clinically significant improvement in both pain and overall physical health. Acupuncture therapy should be offered as part of pain care to underserved populations in the primary care setting.
Acupuncture helps cancer pain quickly and reduces the use of analgesics, according to researchers. A total of 160 patients were randomly assigned to one of four groups: conventional opioid painkillers only; opioids plus wrist-ankle acupuncture; opioids plus ear acupuncture; opioids plus wrist-ankle and ear acupuncture.
The analgesic effect reported in the group receiving opioids only, was significantly lower than that reported in the three acupuncture groups. The most effective analgesic effect was found in the group receiving wrist-ankle plus ear acupuncture: 45% of patients in this group reported pain within a tolerable range and felt no need for medication.
University researchers in Greece studying acupuncture for musculoskeletal pain of a chronic nature, have shown pain intensity, disability and salivary cortisol levels, can all be reduced. Thirty patients were randomly assigned to receive either physiotherapy, acupuncture, or sham ultrasound therapy for ten sessions.
Acupuncture was associated with greater decreases in pain intensity and disability than either physiotherapy or sham ultrasound. Significant decreases in salivary cortisol levels were observed in all three groups.