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The National Institutes of Health Looks at Acupuncture

The National Institutes of Health conducted an extensive review of the scientific evidence for acupuncture in 1997. After a thorough review of the literature available at that time, the evidence was analyzed by a panel of experts. Their primary focus was on studies of the biological basis of acupuncture and its efficacy based on data from randomized, controlled clinical trials.
According to the panel, there is clear evidence 
of the following biological effects of acupuncture: 
  • release of endorphins, substances that inhibit pain
  • regulation of endocrine function
  • increased circulation
  • enhanced immune function

The panel was encouraged by "the emergence of plausible mechanisms for the therapeutic effects of acupuncture." (NIH p.9) However, studies done do far that attempt to define acupuncture points and meridians in terms of Western anatomy and physiology were not as impressive There is still much work that needs to be done to help us understand how acupuncture works.

Regarding the treatment of specific conditions, the panel applied the most rigorous standards in its evaluation. Considered strictly on the basis of high quality clinical trials, the panel cited clear evidence of efficacy for postoperative dental pain, for postoperative nausea and vomiting, and for nausea and vomiting as side effects of chemotherapy. The panel found more limited evidence in support of a number of other conditions, for which acupuncture is useful as an adjunct or alternative therapy, or can be included in a "comprehensive management program". These conditions include: addiction, asthma, carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia, headache, low back pain, menstrual cramps, myofascial pain, nausea in pregnancy, osteoarthritis, stroke rehabilitation, and tennis elbow. (NIH p.2)

As the panel noted, acupuncture has been in widespread use around the world for more than 2000 years, and is enjoying explosive growth in the US. In acupuncture offices where it is used every day, clinical evidence continues to accumulate in support of acupuncture’s efficacy for chronic conditions that benefit from controling pain and inflammation, enhancing circulation, endocrine and immune function, and reducing stress. In addition to the scientific studies, this clinical evidence is very valuable. When ample clinical evidence is supported by some research data, the NIH suggests that acupuncture may be a reasonable treatment option. (NIH p. 9)

In a further comment on the comparison between acupuncture and conventional medicine, the panel praised acupuncture for its demonstrated lack of side effects.

"One of the advantages of acupuncture is that the incidence of adverse effects is substantially lower than that of many drugs or other accepted medical procedures used for the same conditions. (NIH p.9)

Citing a common example, musculoskeletal conditions such as fibromyalgia or muscle pain are often treated with anti-inflammatory medications, aspirin or ibuprofen, or with steroid injections. Despite the prevalence of serious side effects, these medical treatments are widely used and considered effective. Acupuncture treats these conditions very successfully without side effects.

In conclusion, the expert panel found evidence to suggest that acupuncture has much to offer our contemporary medical system. Regarding the future of acupuncture, we hope that it will be allowed to fulfill its promise by being fully integrated with the conventional healthcare system.

"There is sufficient evidence of acupuncture’s value to expand its use into conventional medicine and to encourage further studies of its physiology and clinical value." (NIH p.19)

Acupuncture. NIH Consensus Statement 1997 Nov 3-5; 15(5):1-34.

text copyright @2001 by
Meredith St. John,
Boston, MA