Acupuncture gets a thumbs-up for helping relieve chronic headaches, backache and arthritis in a review of more than two dozen studies - the latest analysis of an often-studied therapy that has as many fans as critics.
Some believe its only powers are a psychological, placebo effect. But some doctors believe even if that's the explanation for acupuncture's effectiveness, there's no reason not to offer it if it makes people feel better.
The new analysis examined 29 studies involving nearly 18,000 adults.
The researchers concluded the needle remedy worked better than usual pain treatment and slightly better than fake acupuncture. That kind of analysis is not the strongest type of research, but the authors took extra steps including examining raw data from the original studies.
The results provided the most robust evidence to date that acupuncture was a reasonable referral option, wrote the authors, who include researchers with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and several universities in England and Germany.
Their study isn't proof, but it adds to evidence that acupuncture may benefit a range of conditions.
The new analysis, published in Archives of Internal Medicine, combined results from studies of patients with common types of chronic pain - recurring headaches, arthritis or back, neck and shoulder.
The studies had randomly assigned patients to acupuncture and either fake acupuncture or standard pain treatment including medication or physical therapy.
The authors explained their statistical findings by using a pain scale of 0 to 100: The patients' average baseline pain measured 60; it dropped to 30 on average in those who got acupuncture, 35 in those who got fake acupuncture, and 43 in the usual treatment group.
While the difference in results for real versus fake acupuncture was small, it suggests acupuncture could have more than a psychological effect, said lead author Andrew Vickers, a cancer researcher at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. The centre offers acupuncture and other alternative therapies for cancer patients with hard-to-treat pain.
The analysis was more rigorous than most research based on pooling previous studies' results, because the authors obtained original data from each study. That makes the conclusion more robust, said Dr Andrew Avins, author of an Archives commentary and a physician and researcher with the University of California at San Francisco and Kaiser-Permanente.
Acupuncture was relatively safe and uncertainty over how it worked shouldn't stop doctors from offering it as an option for patients struggling with pain, Avins said.
"Perhaps a more productive strategy at this point would be to provide whatever benefits we can for our patients, while we continue to explore more carefully all mechanisms of healing," he wrote.