Acupuncture: An Old Debate Continues

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Acupuncture: An old debate continues

Controversy about acupuncture's usefulness as a painkiller continues to rage. In the past 10 years, a small but steady stream of research has suggested that certain acupuncture treatments are indeed analgesic. But the ongoing mystery of acupuncture's mechanism of action -- and the less-than-ideal experimental designs characteristic of so many acupuncture trials--have left many Western scientists and journal reviewers skeptical. From the range of findings reported last week:

* Joseph M. Helms, a physician with the American Academy of Acupuncture in Berkeley, Calif., performed acupuncture treatments on 43 women diagnosed with primary dysmenorrhea (menstrual pain). Some of the women received real acupuncture treatments, some received placebo acupuncture (shallow needle treatments, not at actual acupuncture points), some had monthly, nonacupuncture visits with the doctor and some were followed with no intervention.

The women recorded "monthly pain scores" based on intensity and duration of menstrual pain during a three-month treatment period and for nine months following the cessation of treatment. Later, researchers compared these levels to pretreatment scores, calculated by the women at the beginning of the study. These scores described pain levels for either the month previous to treatment or from an average of the preceding six months, whichever value was highest.

In the real acupuncture group, 10 of 11 women showed significant improvement (defined as pain scores averaging less than half the pretreatment scores). Four of 11 in the placebo acupuncture group showed improvement. Of the other two nonacupuncture groups, 2 of 11 and of 10 showed improvement.

In addition, Helms says, the real acupuncture group required 54 percent fewer pain medications during treatment and 41 percent fewer during the nine-month follow-up. No other group showed similar reductions. …