There is some scientific evidence that acupuncture is effective for a small number of health conditions. However, for the majority of conditions for which acupuncture is used, the scientific evidence is inconclusive or there has been no attempt to collect good-quality evidence. For a small number of conditions, there is evidence that acupuncture does not work.
More research is needed into the effectiveness of acupuncture on a wide range of conditions.
It is important to remember that when we use a treatment and feel better, this can be because of a phenomenon called the placebo effect and not because of the treatment itself.
When scientists gather evidence on the effectiveness of a treatment, they take the placebo effect into account. For more information, watch a video about the placebo effect.
There is reasonably good evidence that acupuncture is an effective treatment for:
- chronic back pain
- dental pain
- pain and discomfort during gastrointestinal endoscopy
- nausea and vomiting after an operation
- pain and discomfort during oocyte retrieval (a procedure used during IVF)
- osteoarthritis of the knee
Scientific trials conducted to investigate the effect of acupuncture on these conditions found that acupuncture had a beneficial effect.
However, because of disagreements over the way acupuncture trials should be carried out and over what their results mean, this evidence does not allow us to draw definite conclusions.
Some scientists believe that good evidence exists only for nausea and vomiting after an operation. Others think that there is currently not enough evidence to show that acupuncture works for any condition.
More research is needed to investigate whether acupuncture works for these conditions.
There is some evidence that acupuncture does not work for:
- rheumatoid arthritis
- stopping smoking
- losing weight
This means that when scientific trials were conducted to see if acupuncture helped patients in these cases, they found that the treatment had no effect.
As with the positive evidence on acupuncture, this evidence does not allow us to draw definite conclusions. More research is needed into the effectiveness of acupuncture for these conditions.
Inconclusive or no evidence
For most conditions against which acupuncture is used, we do not have enough good-quality evidence on the effectiveness of acupuncture. More research is needed before we can draw conclusions on whether acupuncture is effective for the following conditions:
- chronic pain
- neck pain
- shoulder pain
This information is based on The Desktop Guide to Complementary and Alternative Medicine: An Evidence-Based Approach (2006). 2nd edition. Ernst E, Pittler MH and Wider B, eds.