Acupuncture provides long-term relief

Acupuncture for the treatment of migraines has been studied in dozens of clinical trials. A 2012 study mentioned in a previous blog post described a rigorous trial done in 480 patients with highly positive results. The largest, albeit uncontrolled study was done in Germany and involved over 15,000 patients. A well controlled and randomized study of 960 patients comparing acupuncture with sham acupuncture and drug therapy concluded that “…acupuncture is as effective as drug therapy, but …sham acupuncture is as effective as ‘real’ acupuncture.” and “…acupuncture should be offered to patients who do not respond to prophylactic treatment with drugs, terminate drug treatment because of adverse events or have contraindications to drug treatment.”

Most headache specialists recommend acupuncture to their patients even if they believe it works only through the placebo effect. I’ve been a licensed acupuncturist for the past 30 years, but treat a relatively small number of patients with acupuncture. The main reasons are the fact that insurance companies do not pay for it and that it is too time consuming. In the first study mentioned above, which was performed in China, patients were treated five days a week. The minimum frequency of treatments should be once a week. I often recommend that patients find a non-MD acupuncturist (whose rates are usually lower) who is closer to the patient’s home or work place. Another concern with acupuncture is that while it might help during the treatment, the effect might subside once the treatment is stopped.

A study The persistence of the effects of acupuncture after a course of treatment: A meta-analysis of patients with chronic pain, just published in the journal Pain addresses this question.

A group of researchers from the US and Europe examined a large set of information on individual patients from high quality randomized trials of acupuncture for chronic pain. The chronic pain conditions included musculoskeletal pain (low back, neck and shoulder), osteoarthritis of the knee and headache / migraine. Data on longer-term follow-up were available for 20 trials, which included 6,376 patients. In trials comparing acupuncture to no acupuncture control (wait-list, usual care, etc), the treatment effect diminished by a very small amount after treatment ended. They estimated that 90% of the benefit of acupuncture relative to controls would be sustained at 12 months. For trials comparing acupuncture to sham acupuncture, they observed a higher reduction in effect, suggesting about a 50% diminution at 12 months. They concluded that “The effects of a course of acupuncture treatment for patients with chronic pain do not appear to decrease importantly over 12 months. Patients can generally be reassured that treatment effects persist.” They also suggested that studies of the cost-effectiveness of acupuncture should take these findings into account when considering the time horizon of acupuncture effects and that further research should measure longer term outcomes of acupuncture.