Acupuncture provided slightly greater improvement in neck pain in the short-term than sham treatments or being on a waiting list. There were too few studies available to determine its long-term effectiveness and the evidence around disability or quality of life was inconsistent.
Most of the 27 trials included in this review were too varied for their results to be combined statistically and issues with the methodological quality of some studies limits the confidence that we can have in the findings.
This review indicates that acupuncture delivered by a qualified acupuncturist may provide short-term pain relief from neck pain with minimal side effects or harms. Effects do not seem to be sustainable over the long term.
Acupuncture for neck pain is not consistently commissioned in the NHS. However, this review may help to inform patients who choose this type of approach and those who may be considering paying for this treatment themselves.
Why was this study needed?
Musculoskeletal conditions, such as pain in the neck, back and shoulders, are common, accounting for around 30% of all GP consultations. Each year around 30 to 50% of adults experience neck pain. Causes include osteoarthritis, poor posture or injury such as whiplash.
The severity of neck pain can range from short-term mild discomfort that is easily relieved using painkillers such as ibuprofen, to more severe neck pain that can prevent people from working and affect their quality of life.
Neck pain can be treated using physiotherapy, exercises and medication. However, it can be difficult to treat, as around 50 to 80% of people experience further neck pain in the subsequent five years. This leads some patients to seek alternative therapies such as acupuncture.
This systematic review compared the effectiveness of acupuncture for neck pain against sham acupuncture, inactive treatments (such as sham laser), or keeping people on a waiting list.
What did this study do?
This Cochrane systematic review included 27 randomised controlled trials that investigated the effectiveness of acupuncture in treating neck pain that was either acute (less than 30 days of pain), sub-acute (30 to 90 days) or chronic (more than 90 days).
Acupuncture involved inserting fine needles under the skin, sometimes using heat or small electric charges to “stimulate” the needles and potentially increase the effect. It was first compared with “sham” acupuncture, either not inserting the needles into the skin or inserting them in random locations. Secondly it was compared to an “inactive” control – such as a sham form of electrical nerve stimulation or sham laser therapy. Lastly it was compared to people who were kept on waiting lists.
There was too much variation between included studies to pool the results other than when comparing short-term outcomes for acupuncture versus sham acupuncture. Additionally, the low to moderate quality of included studies limited the researchers’ confidence in their findings and the conclusions they could draw.
What did it find?
- Pooling the results of eight studies including 560 people, acupuncture was slightly better than sham acupuncture for pain relief after three months, (standardised mean difference ‑0.23, 95% confidence interval ‑0.40 to ‑0.07) and up to six months according to two small studies. Though it appeared to be more effective at three years follow-up, this was based on just one study including 24 people.
- Moderate and low quality evidence indicated that acupuncture was more beneficial than inactive treatment or waiting list control up to four weeks after treatment, but no different thereafter.
- Acupuncture was not consistently shown to improve disability compared to sham acupuncture, inactive treatment or wait list control.
- The included studies did not indicate that acupuncture was superior to any of the comparison treatments for quality of life outcomes at any time point.
What does current guidance say on this issue?
NICE does not have clinical guidelines for treating neck pain. Its Clinical Knowledge Summaries make the point that that neck pain should be initially treated using lifestyle measures (exercises, changing pillows) and pain relief. For anyone with neck pain lasting 4 to 12 weeks, the advice is that acupuncture may be considered in addition to these first-line treatments, depending on patient preference.
For osteoarthritis, NICE 2014 guidelines recommend that acupuncture is not used.
What are the implications?
The evidence included in this review was of low to moderate quality and most of the results could not be combined statistically due to variations between studies. This limits the certainty we can have in the findings.
This is the fourth version of this review since 2003. The 2016 review includes more studies and uses only randomised controlled trials. It indicates that the evidence base for acupuncture is improving in its quality, but still has a way to go before definitive recommendations can be made with certainty.
These findings suggest that acupuncture is a treatment with minimal harms for patients to consider for short-term neck pain relief, but limited NHS availability and lack of proven longer term benefit may mean that patients have to pay for it themselves. It would be useful if research assessed the combination of acupuncture and simple pain killers, as this is the commonest way that it is used in practice.
Citation and Funding
Trinh K, Graham N, Irnich D, et al. Acupuncture for neck disorders. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016;(5):CD004870.
This project was funded by the Canadian Institute of Health Research, Canada, Knowledge Synthesis Grant “Synthesizing Research Evidence into Clinical Recommendations for Managing Neck Pain”.
Arthritis Research UK. What treatments are there for neck problems? London: Arthritis Research UK; 2016.
Chartered Society of Physiotherapy. Neck pain exercises. London: Chartered Society of Physiotherapy; 2016.
NICE CKS. Neck pain – non-specific. Scenario – management. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence Clinical Knowledge Summary; 2015.
NHS Choices. Acupuncture. London: Department of Health; 2014.
NHS Choices. Neck pain and stiff neck. London: Department of Health; 2014.
NICE. Headaches in over 12s: diagnosis and management. CG150. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; 2012.
NICE. Osteoarthritis: care and management. CG177. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; 2014.
Produced by the University of Southampton and Bazian on behalf of NIHR through the NIHR Dissemination Centre