What is the context of this report?
Evaluation of so-called ‘non-conventionnal’
therapies is generally difficult or even
impossible due to a lack of data.
Even if it’s not the case for acupuncture, for which thousands of publications
and analyses are available, results are however far from consistent.
Since acupuncture is used more and more in parallel with conventional
treatments, the Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale
(INSERM, France) undertook a
synthesis of national and
international medical litterature (with around 250 sources examined), that was
then analysed and reviewed by experts in the evaluation of
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a discipline that stems from traditional chinese medicine,
consisting or the stimulation of specific points on the body using, among other
things, needles, electric currents or light.
Acupuncture is a widely used therapeutic
In France, there are currently training available for people in the medical
This training is offered in medical faculties as an interuniversity
Reasons for consulting an acupuncturist are most commonly pain-related, such
as joint pains and headaches, and are also often linked to strees, fatigue and
Even if many neurobiological pathways have been suggested to explain the way
that acupuncture could have analgesic clinical effets or could help the action
of conventional painkillers, the biological mechanims are not really
Non-specific effects are often considered to originate from the
psychobiological processes triggered by the overall
therapeutic context, the
patient-therapist relation, expectations and beliefs of the patient, etc…, a
group of elements that are part of the «
placebo effect ».
What are the applications where acupuncture seems to have an effect, according to the report?
Available data suggests that acupuncture could be effective in the treatment
of some pain such as headaches, migraines or pain linked to arthitis, even if
authors suggest that the measured effects are partially attributable to the
In a less clear way, it seems that acupuncture could relieve back pain, labor
pain ou menstrual cramps.
Some forms of acupuncture seem to also be beneficial for patients suffering
from nausea and vomitting after chemotherapy or surgery, with minimal side
For the vast majority of other afflictions and conditions that acupuncture
claims to address, like smoking cessation or
epilepsy, the available data is not
sufficient to be able to assess the effectiveness of the treatment.
Are there unwanted side effects to acupuncture?
Reported side-effects are mainly local pain at insertion or needle or at
stimulation, severe bruising was reported in a patient under anticoagulant
treatment), bleeding or bruising at stimulation points, headaches (usually
light, but can be moderate), a feeling of fatigue, nausea or fainting at the
moment of treatment by electro-acupuncture.
Other problems stem either from a hygene problem – if the hands of the
practionionner are not clean or if non-sterile needles are used – or from not
following the angles and depths of insertion that have been codified for more
than two millennia.
What are the conclusions and take-away message of this report?
Globally, the report underlines that the benefits that the analysis or the
available litterature seems to suggest should be interpreted carefully.
Conclusions of different evaluations of available studies vary mainly because of
the large variation in published work and because of problems in methodologies
and protocols, but also because of clearly different interpretations of the data
and because of the risk of bias.
It is thus difficult to compare them and used them in an analysis that would
yield very robust conclusions.
It is thus impossible to be certain of the effectiveness of this
therapeutic approach, and to
determine if acupuncture, no matter what the reason to use it, is more effective
than a placebo treatment.
In summary :
- For many chronic pains and to treat nausea and vomitting, acupuncture
has an effectiveness that is higher than no treatment.
- For the many other conditions, it is difficult to draw any