According to a 2016 CDC study, about 20 percent of Americans live with a chronic pain disorder. Almost 10 percent have a “high impact” pain condition that limits their quality of life. Unsurprisingly, older Americans are more likely to experience regular pain.
Whether it’s a bad back, sore neck, migraines, or another pain disorder, acupuncture treatments are a proven way to deliver relief.
What Does Medical Research Say About Acupuncture and Pain Relief?
For thousands of years, acupuncturists have treated a wide range of maladies, and pain disorders are some of the most responsive to acupuncture. Considerable evidence for acupuncture exists for the following pain conditions:
- Shoulder pain
- Abdominal pain
In addition to the above, emerging research also shows promise for postoperative pain, menstrual pain, and some of the pain and nausea associated with cancer.
Some important medical studies and analyses regarding acupuncture and pain relief include:
- A 2012 meta-analysis published in Archives of Internal Medicine. This meta-analysis looked at 29 trials and a total of 17,922 patients across them. All participants were diagnosed with chronic headache, back and neck pain, or shoulder pain.
The review team found that acupuncture was the superior pain relief option compared to sham acupuncture (placebo) and no acupuncture (the control group). This meta-analysis included only high-quality studies and was pointed out by the National Institutes of Health as a strong positive mark in acupuncture’s favor.
Of particular note is the fact that true acupuncture was more effective than sham acupuncture, even though patients cannot tell the difference between the two methods. This suggests that acupuncture is much more than a placebo.
- A 2017 meta-analysis published in Evidence-Based Complementary Alternative Medicine. This study was unique in that it considered acute pain relief instead of chronic pain. There are dozens of studies that demonstrate acupuncture’s efficacy in chronic pain, but very few exist for acute pain.
This meta-analysis included 13 studies and more than a thousand patients. A number of pain conditions were represented in the sample, including back pain, osteoarthritis, migraine, shoulder pain, neck pain, renal colic, and menstrual pain.
The research team determined that acupuncture could be used as an immediate analgesic. The average onset of pain relief was within 30 minutes, and the average duration of pain relief was three days.
- A 2021 meta-analysis published in Anesthesia and Pain Medicine. This study confined the patient search to people with chronic abdominal pain. Five studies were included in the analysis, all published between 2015 and 2018. In all, about 500 participants were involved.
The authors of the analysis concluded that acupuncture was effective against abdominal pain arising from several conditions, including pancreatitis, appendicitis or surgery.
- Another meta-analysis, this one taken from studies available through the Cochrane Database of Systemic Reviews. This analysis was published in 2016 and only considered studies published through January of 2016, featuring 22 studies and 4,985 patients altogether.
This meta-analysis only considered people suffering from chronic headaches or migraines. The research team found that, for these conditions, acupuncture treatments could produce positive results.
In 15 of the reviewed studies, true acupuncture was compared to sham acupuncture in treating chronic headaches. After several weeks of treatment, 50 percent of the true acupuncture group had reduced their headaches, compared to 41 percent of the sham acupuncture group. The researchers also found that true acupuncture’s efficacy in headaches persisted after a three-month follow-up.
Why is Acupuncture Effective for Pain Conditions?
The above is just a small sample of the medical research supporting acupuncture for chronic pain relief. It’s notable that acupuncture can help with an array of pain conditions, as it suggests that treatment provides system-level benefits to the patient.
Medical researchers and acupuncture practitioners have a few theories as to why acupuncture is so effective for chronic pain. They include:
- Stimulating the body’s nervous system – Acupuncture needles stimulate nervous tissue as they’re inserted, and practitioners believe that this encourages the body to release pain-relieving compounds. Endorphins are one such compound, but only one. Through acupuncture, patients help their bodies heal themselves and suppress pain signaling.
- Regulating hormonal balance – Acupuncture can also help restore hormonal balance, which may help with any pain conditions exacerbated by abnormal hormone levels. Menstrual pain is an example.
- Reducing stress and anxiety – Acupuncture is a proven stress and anxiety-reliever as well. And by reducing stress and anxiety, many patients can also reduce their pain. As chronic stress and pain can also result in chronic inflammation, acupuncture can produce cascading, pain-fighting effects.
- Supporting mindfulness – Acupuncture requires patients to relax, remain calm, sit still, and remain in a positive mental state throughout treatment. This can help patients escape a negative pain and stress feedback loop.
It’s possible that a combination of the above is what’s driving pain relief, but it’s also different for every patient. As such, acupuncture’s efficacy may depend on the individual, their overall health, and their mental state.
Dealing with Neck Pain, Back Pain or Another Chronic Pain Condition? Acupuncture Treatment is a Proven Option
Chronic pain can impose major limitations on quality of life. And yet, they are extremely common among U.S. adults. Another concern is that pain medications come with serious side effects of their own, including potential addiction. By comparison, acupuncture comes with less risk and can be used with most people safely, as long as treatment is provided by a licensed practitioner.
Licensed acupuncturists only use safe, sanitary equipment in their practice, and they know what acupuncture points to target for optimal effect. If you’re considering acupuncture sessions for your pain relief, a licensed acupuncturist can provide the right type of care.