Over the past decade the research over the benefits of acupuncture has piled up, demonstrating that acupuncture can help with everything from seasonal allergies to arthritis in the knee. Add chronic back, neck, and head pain and depression to the list. New research shows that acupuncture, when combined with Western medical treatments, eases persistent aches and boosts mood significantly better than standard care alone.
In a large-scale research review, renowned acupuncture experts at the U.K.’s University of York analyzed 29 high-quality trials involving some 18,000 patients. Everyone had been diagnosed with chronic neck pain, lower-back pain, knee osteoarthritis, migraines, or regular headaches. Those who underwent acupuncture in addition to standard care such as physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medications had less severe neck and back pain, fewer headaches, and less pain and disability from their arthritic knees than the patients who got only traditional treatments. As a result, the acupuncture recipients relied less on drugs to manage their pain.
“We found that conventional medical care oftentimes does not relieve symptoms,” says Hugh MacPherson, professor of acupuncture research at York. “However, when you provide acupuncture, there is a clinical beneficial effect. In some cases the conventional medicine just is not working; in other cases it’s the combination [of drugs and acupuncture] that works.”
MacPherson admits there is a placebo effect of acupuncture, which explains some of its effectiveness. “Placebo effects are estimated to explain 60 percent of acupuncture’s benefit,” he explains. “But the remaining 40 percent is the extent that acupuncture achieves above and beyond that.”
MacPherson has been studying how acupuncture works for a while now, using MRIs to assess its effects on the brain. “The mechanism is complex and involves endorphins, which are the body's natural painkillers, as well as neurotransmitters,” he says. His past research has shown that blood flow to the brain decreases during acupuncture, which means it’s registering less pain when the needles are inserted.
In a separate trial, the largest of its kind, MacPherson’s team divided 755 Brits with diagnosed depression into three treatment groups. They received either standard therapies such as antidepressant drugs, standard care plus acupuncture, or standard care plus counseling. Both the acupuncture group and the therapy participants saw massive reductions in their symptoms compared to those who got just traditional care. Prior research suggests acupuncture stimulates production of a neuroprotective protein called GDNF, which is typically in lower supply among depression sufferers.
For both chronic pain and depression, “our evidence shows that acupuncture usually starts working to some extent after the first session, although most of the benefit is achieved after around eight to 10 sessions,” MacPherson says. “These benefits are likely to last at least 12 months on average, as I found in my recent meta-analysis of patients with chronic pain."
Given that study after study finds no real side effects of acupuncture — unlike libido-tanking antidepressants and digestive-system-wracking or addictive pain meds — you don’t have anything to lose by trying it out. Just make sure you visit a licensed, credentialed provider.