Traditional Chinese acupuncture may have no point, research finds

Acupuncture can halve the incidence of headaches among people who are susceptible to them, scientists report today.

But it remains an open question whether traditional acupuncture carried out according to the principles of the ancient Chinese practice is necessary. Researchers found that sticking pins in randomly over the body so they just penetrated the skin was equally effective.

Scientists in Germany who carried out one of the largest studies into the alternative therapy found patients who received acupuncture had seven fewer days with headaches over the four weeks following treatment.

Acupuncturists say there are 365 pressure points that must be stimulated for the therapy to heal. These are said to tap into a dozen body energy channels, or meridians. But patients who had the minimal acupuncture, with randomly placed needles, had 6.6 fewer days with headaches following treatment, an improvement almost equal to that for the traditional acupuncture group.

Both groups received 12 sessions of the therapy over eight weeks. A third group, who received no treatment, had 1.5 fewer days with headaches in the four weeks following the trial.

There were 270 patients in the study in total who had reported suffering tension headaches at least eight days a month.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, the researchers from the Centre for Complementary Medicine Research at the University of Munich say the effectiveness of the "minimal" acupuncture is "intriguing". Even though fewer needles were used and they were inserted less deeply than in traditional acupuncture, their physiological effect cannot be considered "completely inert". Alternatively, the therapy may have produced a placebo effect more potent than that associated with drugs, they suggest.

The study is the latest to suggest that "minimal" or "sham" acupuncture is as good as the real thing. A study last year of 302 mostly female migraine patients found both methods were equally effective in reducing attacks.

An earlier study, published in the BMJ last year, also found evidence for the effectiveness of acupuncture as a treatment for headaches and migraines. A trial organised by the Royal London Homeopathic hospital involving 400 patients with frequent head-aches found their headaches sharply reduced after 12 sessions of acupuncture.

The patients were mainly women who had been taking three or four paracetamol a day, on average, before the study. A year later, having had 12 acupuncture sessions, they had fewer headaches, made fewer visits to the GP, used less medication and took less time off sick.

But sceptics remain. At least 26 randomised controlled trials had previously been published showing no convincing effect of acupuncture on headaches.

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