In the U.S., thousands of people are prescribed opioid pain medications every year. With very few alternatives available, it remains the standard way of alleviating chronic pain. However, opioid use is associated with a wide range of possible adverse effects, with over 15,000 deaths caused by overdose annually. Among other ways to make pain subside is acupuncture. But does it compare to opioids in terms of effectiveness?
Acupuncture has been a bone of contention for many decades. Its advocates, predominantly those working in the East, claim the practice is grounded in scientific evidence and stems from an ancient belief that you can affect qi, or life energy, which circulates in the body, by inserting needles into particular spots. Even if the qi-aspect is left out, researchers tend to disagree, as results of dozens of reviews and clinical trials proved to be inconsistent, with little evidence supporting its efficacy.
However, more recent research suggests there can still be ways to use acupuncture in medicine – the list of applications with proved effectiveness is not as impressive as it is in the East, but the practice can be part of pain management.
Is there evidence suggesting that acupuncture can be used as a substitute for morphine?
Yes. In 2016, a team of scientists at the University of Monastir (Tunisia) reported that acupuncture can be even more effective at acute pain management in emergency department patient s. According to them, acupuncture proved to be effective in 92% of patients, whereas in the morphine group the success rate was only 78%. Besides, acupuncture resulted in faster relief (16 minutes, compared to 28 minutes on average in the morphine group), and was well-tolerated, i.e. led to fewer adverse effects with no major ones. Two years down the line, the same group carried out another study and found that acupuncture can have a deeper and faster analgesic effect in patients with acute renal colic.
Still, is there anything else beyond the research conducted by one group?
In 2012, a systematic review covering a wide range of studies showed that acupuncture can be used as a treatment for chronic pain, as it appears to be more effective than ‘sham’ (placebo) acupuncture. However, the difference between the effects acupuncture and placebo have – although it is statistically significant – is not great enough to suggest that no other factors come into play.
If so, can it be used for all kinds of pain?
In 2017, an international team of researchers reported that acupuncture can be used as treatment not only for chronic pain management, but also in neonatal intensive care units and other settings.
Not likely. The studies listed above and other clinical trials showed that acupuncture can help manage chronic headaches, lower back pain, post-operative pain, pain associated with osteoarthritis, and, perhaps, nausea. As to sciatica, labor pain, and plantar heel pain, there is not enough evidence to recommend it as an alternative (yet).
As evidenced by major research organizations, acupuncture can be used for pain relief due to its relative effectiveness and safety. Still, it may not work for some patients, so the placebo effect cannot be ruled out completely.
If you decide it is time to try acupuncture, make sure the person who will insert needles is experienced. It is recommended to choose those acupuncturists who are certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.
Acupuncture for Chronic Pain: Individual Patient Data Meta-analysis – jamanetwork.com
Acupuncture’s Role in Solving the Opioid Epidemic: Evidence, Cost-Effectiveness, and Care Availability for Acupuncture as a Primary, Non-Pharmacologic Method for Pain Relief and Management–White Paper 2017 – sciencedirect.com
Relieving pain with acupuncture – health.harvard.edu