Acupuncture: for which conditions is it effective?


Clinical studies validate the effects of small needles with a high level of evidence for the treatment of pain, migraines and headaches.

In traditional Chinese medicine, of which it is one of the elements, acupuncture aims to balance the vital energy, the Qi (pronounced “chee”), and thus to regulate the functioning of the organs. The method ? Stimulate, essentially using fine needles, some of the 361 points located on the 20 meridians where the Qi would circulate on the surface of the body.

According to this medicine, the disease, as well as the pain or any other symptom result from a bad circulation of Qi. Fluidizing it would therefore keep the body healthy and restoring it would promote healing by restoring the proper functioning of the organs.

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Acupuncture therefore has a preventive aim, but also a curative one, with broad indications, since it does not focus on an organ to be treated, but on an entire organism to be balanced. If the biological existence of Qi and meridians remains globally a mystery, not validated by science, clinical effects have been observed.

An effective painkiller

To find out more, nearly 13,000 clinical trials have been conducted since the 1970s. These are partly so-called randomized protocols where acupuncture is compared to no treatment; or other treatment; and even a placebo using retractable needles mimicking the effect of real needles.

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In 2014, all of these results were appraised by the Inserm team of Professor Bruno Falissard. This study concluded at a high level of evidence for headaches and migraines (consequently, it is present in the new 2021 recommendations of the French Society for the Study of Migraines and Headaches); for many pains (joint, musculoskeletal and postoperative), but also for nausea and vomiting – especially those related to chemotherapy -, and certain allergies.

A moderate level of evidence has also been established for certain neuropathies, gynecological pain, psychiatric (anxiety and depression) or digestive disorders (constipation, irritable bowel, etc.) and for the treatment of sequelae of cerebrovascular accidents.

“A highly personalized medicine”

Thus, acupuncture has won its place in the medical community, above all for the treatment of pain. It offers an interesting complement when conventional medicine is not able to provide satisfactory relief on its own. Especially for those taking certain drug treatments, such as opiates, with sometimes violent side effects.

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Randomized controlled trials are essential to validate the uses of non-drug interventions, in particular acupuncture, specifies Pr Julien Nizard, president of the University College of Integrative and Complementary Medicine. However, they probably offer only a partial view of its potential effects. As with other non-pharmacological therapies, feedback from expert practitioners must also be taken into account, as well as the opinions and preferences of patients. This is essential because it is a highly personalized medicine where the relationship between the patient and the practitioner plays a major role in the improvement of symptoms. We therefore need to further develop qualitative studies in order to better probe the lived experience of patients and link it to efficacy criteria. »

Thanks to these studies, the field of therapeutic indications for acupuncture could expand in the years to come.

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