The clinical effectiveness of acupuncture for pain relief – you can be certain of uncertainty
- Mark I Johnson, professor of pain and analgesia
Nowadays the volume of published research is so overwhelming that practitioners are turning to expert groups to interpret and summarise research for them. This paper critically reviews the processes used to establish one-sentence statements about the effectiveness of acupuncture for pain relief. Some one-sentence statements claim that acupuncture is not clinically effective because systematic reviews of clinical trials find similar amounts of pain relief between sham acupuncture and real acupuncture. However, these one-sentence statements fail to account for shortcomings in clinical trials such as inadequate doses and inappropriate acupuncture technique. Establishing the physiological intention of acupuncture and developing criteria to assess whether this has been achieved in trials will help to overcome some of these problems in future trials. In addition, shortcomings in systematic review methodology such as imprecise inclusion criteria, comparisons of heterogeneous study populations and imprecise definitions of acupuncture have resulted in discrepancies in vote counting of outcomes between review groups. Recognition of these issues has produced a shift in favour of acupuncture in recent systematic reviews and meta-analyses. It is hoped that this will be reflected in a reappraisal of some of the negative one-sentence statements about the effectiveness of acupuncture for pain relief.