Do The Effects of Acupuncture For Chronic Pain Last? (Yes, Study Says)

Chronic pain is an extremely common reason for which people seek help from their acupuncturist. There is much you can do with acupuncture for pain and countless studies and clinical experiences attest to the results. There are, of course, a range of issues which can be driving the pain that people feel, so there are no cookie cutter solutions to these complex issues. And the complexity only gets compounded when you are also dealing with physical and mental addiction to pain medicines and side effects from many western approaches. But suffice it to say acupuncture, largely due to the systemic way that it works (see “What Does Acupuncture Treat?” and “How Does Acupuncture Work?“), will help people with chronic pain. Resolve all their issues, maybe not, but help in significant ways, yes.

One of the concerns I hear from my acupuncture patients once they have improved significantly from their pain is a worry that it will come back if they don’t continue treatment or even if they do. There is often such a deep relief when patients like these are on the obvious road to recovery from their issues that the concern about their pain returning (and the lack of ability to live their lives with it) is a considerable PTSD’esque experience.

chronic-back-painAnyone who has seen me as a patient know that I am a less is more style practitioner. So I very often tell patients that they do not need further treatment once they are doing well – or they only need to come in quarterly or monthly, depending on their case. This often brings a fear response from them. Some people continue to come regardless, which I don’t mind as acupuncture is always beneficial from a preventative standpoint. Further I understand the fear they have of their chronic pain returning.

The study I’m writing about today, however, gives a general view of how long the positive response on pain from acupuncture treatment is likely to last without further interventions. This month in the journal “Pain” researchers from the UK and the US performed a meta-analysis study of some 6376 patients in 20 different studies. They found the following:

  • 90% of patients would see sustained benefit at 12 months – in trials where acupuncture was compared with no acupuncture.
  • 50% of patients would see sustained benefit at 12 months – in trials where acupuncture was compared with sham acupuncture.

The researchers concluded with “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.”

This is overall good news for patients with chronic pain. Now there is a range of ideas on what constitutes a course of treatment and it will depend on the case, a slew of theories on how often treatment is necessary during that course of treatment (i.e. daily, weekly, monthly, etc.), and what level of improvement to expect.

Your individual practitioners can often guide you in what to expect based on their clinical experience and how you respond to the first few initial treatments. But further studies should be done to try to evaluate these deeper clinical issues.

Further, what is making the person better? Is acupuncture fixing the issues? Simply blocking pain signals? Stopping inflammatory signals? We know some of these answers and some we don’t. More than likely based on studies and clinical experience the positive response patients feel is from a broad response by the body slowing inflammation, not listening as strongly to pain signals and actual healing in the body. But, again, further studies such as disc herniation cases that are re-evaluated not just by the patients indication of less pain, but by MRI, for example, would be very helpful.

All things considered patients can feel very confident in the process of acupuncture for chronic pain issues. And as they start feeling better they can be reasonably confident that they will stay feeling better without the need for frequent treatments.


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