People decide to try acupuncture for a number of reasons. It might be because a friend recommends it, or you have read something in the press, on line, or via social media, or it may be because you have a chronic condition that isn't responding to any other treatment.
Behind all of these reasons, it is important to know that like other medical interventions, a huge amount of effort goes into researching the effectiveness of acupuncture as well as trying to understand how it might work.
There are three different types of research into acupuncture:
The first category is known as 'real world comparative effectiveness trials' where acupuncture is measured against another standard treatment. One example of this is a trial carried out by the NHS into the the use of acupuncture for migraine headache against other drug based treatment. (Vickers et al. 2004). Results were encouraging and indicate that acupuncture is more effective and safer. This aspect is an especially important advantage of acupuncture. It was reported in the BMJ that the risks of side effects and dependency from a number of commonly used pain killers is a growing concern. (BMJ : 356, Feb 2017)
The Cochrane review, which sets out the highest standards of evidence for a given treatment, states that "patients reported greater benefits from acupuncture than from two antispasmodic drugs, both of which have been shown to provide a modest benefit for IBS". So that's good news for people suffering from Irritable Bowl Syndrome.
The second type of research, the RCT (random controlled trial) is designed to prove efficacy. This is the gold standard trial for pharmaceutical drugs but not for interventions such as surgery, physiotherapy or the talking therapies, where there is an active intervention in that the person giving the treatment is part of the treatment.
Despite a number of problems in performing this sort of acupuncture research, 8,000 such clinical trials have taken place around the world. The Acupuncture Evidence Project (McDonald and Janz 2017) have recently concluded that the quality of research is improving and there is now good evidence for acupuncture in the improvement of migraines and headache, low back pain, knee osteoarthritis pain, allergic rhinitis, post operative pain and chemo and post-operative induced nausea and vomiting.
One of the the problems for acupuncture in carrying out these trials is that numbers of patients for clinical acupuncture studies are simply not large enough, partly because funding for acupuncture research is limited. However, one trial with 17,922 patients found that acupuncture was significantly superior to sham acupuncture. (Vickers et al 2012).
Finally there are plenty of studies that investigate the possible mechanism of acupuncture - that is, what actually happens in the body when an acupuncture needle is inserted.
There is still a lot to discover but MRI scans of the brain during acupuncture reveal changes in blood flow there. (See studies by Zhang Jin Zhang et al 2012, and Anderson et al 2012). Observations have noted biomedical changes in the release of painkilling neuropeptides, and the release of adenosine that promotes healing and reduces inflammation.
As practitioners, we learn from acupuncture research in order to promote best practice in clinic. If you want to learn more about acupuncture research visit the website of "Acupuncture Now", or for research on specific conditions see the research pages of The British Acupuncture Council.