No 33: Acupuncture
Acupuncture is one of the most popular complementary therapies in the UK. About a million sessions are provided on the NHS each year, costing £26m, while another 2 million are paid for privately. Research shows that acupuncture is effective in stopping nausea and vomiting from various causes and in alleviating pain after dental surgery. But the picture is less clear on its value in treating headaches and back pain, and suggests it is of little use for quitting smoking, treating tinnitus or tackling obesity.
Acupuncture in the west
Acupuncture is offered in the UK both by therapists basing their approach on Chinese beliefs and conventional NHS doctors and physiotherapists. One view is that acupuncture works by sending impulses to the central nervous system which releases hormones to block pain.
Does acupuncture work?
Although many people testify that acupuncture works for them, research into its effectiveness has been poor. A systematic survey of all trials so far by the NHS centre for reviews and dissemination suggests that acupuncture works well for a few complaints but evidence is lacking for many others.
Conditions acupuncture may help
Acupuncture is generally effective in alleviating pain after dental surgery, according to a review of 16 studies. In one trial, patients who had acupuncture after having wisdom teeth out were pain-free for nearly twice as long as those who had no pain relief. Other trials show that acupuncture is effective in treating nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy and after surgery.
Conditions acupuncture probably fails to help
Although acupuncture is widely offered to help smokers quit, studies show that it is no better than a placebo in the long term. There is also little evidence to suggest that it helps treat asthma, obesity, stroke rehabilitation or tinnitus.
Where the jury is still out
Acupuncture is commonly used to treat chronic pain such as backache and headaches. The evidence is conflicting. However, since many patients in chronic pain try acupuncture after all else has failed, and serious side effects are rare, the researchers conclude that it may still be justified.