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This is a plain English summary of an original research article. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and reviewer(s) at the time of publication.

Acupuncture is not a placebo for treatment of chronic pain. This NIHR-funded systematic review shows that acupuncture is better than usual care and sham acupuncture for pain from musculoskeletal conditions, knee osteoarthritis and chronic headache.

This NIHR review was large with over 140 trials overall, and the direct comparison with sham acupuncture helps to address uncertainty around whether acupuncture gives clinical benefit above a “placebo effect.” Acupuncture had a smaller effect on pain when compared with sham acupuncture than when compared with no acupuncture, but both comparisons showed statistically significant differences. Acupuncture also improved quality of life compared with standard care and was assessed to be a good use of NHS resources.

Acupuncture is currently recommended for the prevention of chronic headaches, but not for musculoskeletal pain or osteoarthritis pain. The findings may inform forthcoming guideline updates.

The availability of accredited acupuncturists varies across the UK. Though some are currently funded in NHS clinics, additional NHS funding for providers managing chronic pain conditions may be indicated.

Why was this study needed?

Around four million acupuncture treatments are provided each year in the UK with approximately two-thirds of this provision outside the National Health Service. Acupuncture is often used in circumstances when other treatments have not fully helped patients, especially as treatment for joint pain and long-term headaches. The NHS reportedly funds around one-third of treatments given in the UK through providers such as doctor’s physiotherapists and nurses, but access to acupuncture varies around the country.

Studies to date have suggested that acupuncture is safe when delivered by experienced professionals. However, whether it actually gives any clinical benefit, or whether any effects might be down to the “placebo effect” of delivering an intervention, has often been debated. Some argue that the placebo effect itself is useful.

Using a robust systematic review methodology, this project aimed to shed light on the clinical benefits and costs of acupuncture, comparing it to sham acupuncture, placebo, usual care and other interventions. The researchers wanted to provide information for patients and decision-makers to guide the NHS in better understanding the role of acupuncture in chronic pain and to settle the question of whether it was acting as a complex placebo.

What did this study do?

This systematic review was conducted in two parts. The first included 29 randomised controlled trials comparing acupuncture with sham acupuncture or non-acupuncture controls in 17,922 adults with osteoarthritis, chronic headache or musculoskeletal pain (back, neck or shoulder).

Researchers looked at effect on pain and whether acupuncture improved quality of life on the EuroQol-5 Dimensions (EQ-5D) scale and gave value for money.

The studies came from UK, US, Germany, Spain and Sweden. Most had high follow-up rates and participants were unaware of treatment given. However, individual trial results differed, likely due to differences in the controls used and method for assessing pain outcomes.

The second part included 114 trials in 9,709 people with knee osteoarthritis. Researchers included the higher quality trials in a network meta-analysis, comparing acupuncture with other physical therapies directly within trials and indirectly across trials.

What did it find?

  • Acupuncture was more effective than control for all pain conditions. It had moderate effect compared with non-acupuncture care for musculoskeletal pain (standardised mean difference [SMD] 0.55, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.51 to 0.58), osteoarthritis (SMD 0.57, 95% CI 0.50 to 0.64) and headache (SMD 0.42, 95% CI 0.37 to 0.46).
  • It had smaller effect compared with sham acupuncture for musculoskeletal (SMD 0.37, 95% CI 0.27 to 0.46), osteoarthritis (SMD 0.26, 95% CI 0.17 to 0.34) and headache pain (SMD 0.15, 95% CI 0.07 to 0.24).
  • When excluding smaller, lower quality trials, patients receiving acupuncture still had less pain than people receiving sham acupuncture.
  • Acupuncture was better than standard care for osteoarthritis knee pain (SMD 1.01, 95% credible interval [CrI] 0.61 to 1.43). It outperformed exercise and weight loss interventions, and had similar success to balneotherapy, which consists in bathing in water rich in minerals (data from only one small trial). Sham acupuncture was also better than standard care for knee pain (SMD 0.68, 95% CrI 0.19 to 1.17), but had smaller effect when compared with acupuncture (SMD 0.34, 95% CrI 0.03 to 0.66).
  • Acupuncture improved quality of life compared with usual care in people with musculoskeletal pain (EQ-5D score improvement 0.082, 95% CrI 0.047 to 0.116), knee osteoarthritis (0.079, 95% CrI 0.042 to 0.114) and chronic headache pain (0.056, 95% CrI 0.021 to 0.092). There was no significant effect compared with sham acupuncture.
  • Acupuncture has a cost of £9,000 to £13,000 per quality-adjusted year of life gained (QALY) for musculoskeletal, osteoarthritis or chronic headache pain. This is below the NHS willingness-to-pay threshold of £20,000 to £30,000.

What does current guidance say on this issue?

The NICE guideline on headaches in young people and adults, reviewed in 2016, recommends up to ten sessions of acupuncture delivered over five to eight weeks for the prevention of tension-type headaches and migraines.

The 2016 NICE guideline recommends against acupuncture for managing low back pain with or without nerve pain (sciatica). The 2014 NICE guideline on the management of osteoarthritis also advises against acupuncture and also considered the evidence presented in this review.

All three guidelines are planned for review in 2018.

What are the implications?

This study shows that acupuncture is not just a placebo and is effective for treatment of musculoskeletal, osteoarthritis and chronic headache pain.

This study supports the UK practice for considering acupuncture in the preventative management of chronic headache pain. It could also point to a possible change in future treatment recommendations for musculoskeletal and osteoarthritis pain.

However the treatment benefit might be considered small. The practical issues of workforce development and the total costs that arise from changing referral practices for common long-term conditions, will also need consideration.

It is difficult to find properly accredited acupuncturists in the UK and appropriate training would be needed if the provision of acupuncture was increased nationally.


Citation and Funding

MacPherson H, Vickers A, Bland M, et al. Acupuncture for chronic pain and depression in primary care: a programme of research. Programme Grants Appl Res 2017;5(3).

This project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research [Programme Grants for Applied Research programme] (project number RP-PG-0707-10186).



Claxton K, Martin SSoares M, et al. Methods for the Estimation of the NICE Cost Effectiveness Threshold. Health Technol Assess. 2015;19(14):1-503.

Hopton AK, Curnoe S, Kanaan M, Macpherson H. Acupuncture in practice: mapping the providers, the patients and the settings in a national cross-sectional survey. BMJ Open. 2012;2(1):e000456.

NHS Choices.  Acupuncture. London: Department of Health; reviewed 2016.

NICE. Headaches in over 12s: diagnosis and management. CG150. London: National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence; 2015.

NICE. Low back pain and sciatica in over 16s: assessment and management. NG59. London: National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence; 2016.

NICE. Osteoarthritis: care and management. CG177. London: National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence; 2014.

Vogel S. NICE clinical guidelines. Low back pain: The early management of persistent non-specific back pain. Int J Osteopath Med. 2009;12:113-4.

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Acupuncture is a treatment derived from ancient Chinese medicine where fine needles are inserted in specific sites in the body for therapeutic or preventative purposes. Sham acupuncture involves using needles that do not penetrate the skin or performing acupuncture at the wrong sites. Sham acupuncture is designed not to have clinical effect and is solely an experimental control of acupuncture.

Statistical analyses sometimes report credible intervals [CrI]; these intervals summarise the level of certainty of the results. This study reports 95% CrI, which means there is a 95% probability that the value of interest lies in the interval.


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