Important to know: Chronic health conditions should be addressed under direct medical supervision of your GP or consultant, and acupuncture would be an adjunct or complement to usual care – we advise that you let you doctor know when you use this approach.
Chronic Pain in General
“Acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic musculoskeletal, headache, and osteoarthritis pain. Treatment effects of acupuncture persist over time and cannot be explained solely in terms of placebo effects. Referral for a course of acupuncture treatment is a reasonable option for a patient with chronic pain”. (Vickers et al, 2018: large chronic pain review of high quality RCTs updating a previous meta-analysis; 39 trials, n=20827; conditions addressed chronic headache, back/neck pain and osteoarthritis)
Another recent overview (Yin et al, 2017) confirms that there is increasing evidence for acupuncture as an effective, safe, and cost-effective intervention in chronic low back, neck, shoulder, and knee pain, as well as headaches.
The NHS body in charge of which treatments should be used in particular conditions recommends acupuncture for chronic pain: The NICE Scenario Management guidelines (2021) for chronic pain state: “consider a course of acupuncture or dry needling, within a traditional Chinese or Western acupuncture system”
Overall, a large systematic review has found acupuncture a cost effective intervention for several painful conditions (Ambrósio et al, 2012).
The British Acupuncture Council has a Research digest where they examined some recent studies on temporomandibular pain, as well as an evidence based factsheet on chronic pain (links are below), finding promising evidence in the field. Fernandes et al (2017) systematic review looked at 4 trials into TMD of muscular origin, finding acupuncture appears to relieve symptoms in this condition, albeit they noted evidence quality was limited and further research was needed in future in this area.
Justo et al (2017) carried out a systematic review of 4 articles finding that overall, acupuncture was effective in relieving myofascial pain symptoms in patients with temporomandibular dysfunction, albeit that the quality and quantity of the studies meant further research is needed in the area, including for long term outcomes. This echoes La Touche et al’s earlier (2010) systematic review where they found that the majority of the studies reported that acupuncture was statistically signiﬁcant for short term pain relief of myofascial TMD but with the proviso that more studies with larger sample sizes, longer-term follow-up and higher design quality were required in the future to corroborate these trends.
Mechanisms of Action
Acupuncture stimulates the body to create its own natural painkilling substances, such as Beta Endorphins (β-Endorphin). In studies acupuncture has been shown to stimulate the production of natural painkillers called opioid-like peptides (OLPs), including β-Endorphin: For example, this was shown in an RCT in 90 patients with a range of painful disorders (Petti et al, 1998). The same study showed acupuncture also and enhanced the activity of immune cells (lymphocytes, natural killer cells and monocytes) that help fight infections and diseases (Petti et al, 1998).
About the research: It is worth noting that in research, randomised controlled studies (RCT) are the most reliable in terms of quality of evidence, with a systematic review or meta analysis of numerous studies being the best way of seeing the overall picture of the state of the evidence. Below we have a selection of the available research, which does include some larger RCTs, and reviews of the literature alongside smaller studies. The n= figure tells you how many people were participants in the study.
More detail on neurotransmitters in acupuncture for pain is in our blog.
The British Acupuncture Council (BAcC) has produced an evidence based factsheet about Facial Pain (TMJ) including specific research, trials and mechanisms of action for acupuncture
BAcC Headache Factsheet
General Chronic Pain References:
Ambrósio, E.M.M., Bloor, K. and MacPherson, H., 2012. Costs and consequences of acupuncture as a treatment for chronic pain: a systematic review of economic evaluations conducted alongside randomised controlled trials. Complementary therapies in medicine, 20(5), pp.364-374.
Birch, S., Lee, M.S., Alraek, T. and Kim, T.H., 2018. Overview of treatment guidelines and clinical practical guidelines that recommend the use of acupuncture: a bibliometric analysis. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 24(8), pp.752-769.
Petti, F.., Bangrazi, A., Liguori, A., Reale, G. and Ippoliti, F., 1998. Effects of acupuncture on immune response related to opioid-like peptides. Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine 18(1), pp.55-63.
NICE 2021 Chronic pain: Scenario: Management Last revised in April 2021
Vickers, A.J., Vertosick, E.A., Lewith, G., MacPherson, H., Foster, N.E., Sherman, K.J., Irnich, D., Witt, C.M., Linde, K. and Acupuncture Trialists’ Collaboration, 2018. Acupuncture for chronic pain: update of an individual patient data meta-analysis. The Journal of Pain, 19(5), pp.455-474.
Yin, C., Buchheit, T.E. and Park, J.J., 2017. Acupuncture for chronic pain: an update and critical overview. Current opinion in anaesthesiology, 30(5), pp.583-592.
Temporomandibular Joint Disorder References:
Justo, A.C.B.D.C., Moura, D.M.D., Da Silva, L.G.D., De Almeida, E.O. and Barbosa, G.A.S., 2017. Acupuncture in temporomandibular disorder myofascial pain treatment: a systematic review. CEP, 59056, p.000.
La Touche, R., Angulo-Díaz-Parreño, S., de-la-Hoz, J.L., Fernández-Carnero, J., Ge, H.Y., Linares, M.T., Mesa, J. and Sánchez-Gutiérrez, J., 2010. Effectiveness of acupuncture in the treatment of temporomandibular disorders of muscular origin: a systematic review of the last decade. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16(1), pp.107-112.
Fernandes AC, Duarte Moura DM, Da Silva LGD, De Almeida EO, Barbosa GAS. Acupuncture in Temporomandibular Disorder Myofascial Pain Treatment: A Systematic Review. J Oral Facial Pain Headache. 2017 Summer;31(3):225-232. doi: 10.11607/ofph.1719. PMID: 28738107.