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Acupuncture really can reduce pain, study finds

Acupuncture – touted as a treatment for everything from allergies to infertility – is still grappling for legitimacy in Western medicine.

But while the jury is out on many of the health claims, new research suggests acupuncture really can poke your pain away.

A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that acupuncture is more effective than standard pain treatment in reducing chronic pain. Moreover, the age-old Chinese remedy works slightly better than sham needle therapy, Time.com reports.

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Since the results with acupuncture are different from those of sham or placebo treatments, says lead researcher Andrew Vickers, an epidemiologist and biostatistician at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, "we conclude that the effects aren't due merely to the placebo effect."

The findings contradict an earlier study conducted by the Group Health Center for Health Studies in Seattle, which concluded that acupuncture was no better at relieving pain than a fake treatment using toothpicks.

But Vickers says that he and his colleagues reviewed 29 previous studies involving nearly 18,000 participants and assessed only the most rigorous trials involving acupuncture and pain relief to reach their conclusions.

Their work provides "strong scientific support" for acupuncture as a treatment for migraines, arthritis and other forms of chronic pain, The New York Times reports.

In North America, acupuncture is one of the most widely used alternative therapies. The ancient treatment involves inserting thin needles into the skin at "acupoints." Acupuncturists believe that our essential life force, called "qi," flows through meridians in the body. According to traditional Chinese medicine, stimulating specific points along the meridians balances and unblocks qi, relieving pain and illness.

The relationship between alternative treatments and conventional medical care "remains ambiguous," says Andrew Avins, a research scientist at Kaiser Permanente, who wrote an editorial accompanying the publication of Vickers's research. But in the case of acupuncture, he adds, the new study provides "robust evidence" that traditional needle therapy offers "modest benefits over usual care for patients with diverse sources of chronic pain."

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About the Author

Adriana Barton is based in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. Her article on growing up with counterculture parents is published in a McGraw-Hill anthology, right after an essay by Margaret Atwood. She wishes her last name didn’t start with B. More

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