I’ve introduced you to the Medical Letter in a previous post. It’s a great source of unbiased reviews of the medical literature. In their most recent issue, the Medical Letter reviewed the available evidence about acupuncture. Since I can’t link to the full text (it’s available only to subscribers) I’ll summarize their review.

Anesthesia The studies supporting the use of acupuncture for postoperative pain and nausea suggest it may be useful as an adjunct to traditional anti-nausea and pain medications, not as a sole treatment.

Cancer palliative care The results of studies of acupuncture for cancer pain or for chemotherapy-related nausea have been mixed. One review of several studies showed a small advantage in using acupuncture for nausea in addition to standard anti-nausea medicine.

Low back pain Acupuncture is more effective than no treatment or than sham acupuncture (inserting needles at points other than the traditional acupuncture points) for low back pain. One study suggested that acupuncture was more effective than physical therapy.

Headache Results of studies of acupuncture for chronic headaches have been mixed, with some demonstrating no benefit over standard therapy, and others showing that acupuncture decreases need of pain-relieving medication.

Osteoarthritis of the knee More than one study has shown that acupuncture is effective in treating arthritis.

Other uses Acupuncture is currently used in smoking cessation, weight loss, addiction, depression, and stroke. There is no convincing evidence that acupuncture is effective for these problems.

The article concludes:

Acupuncture alone has not been shown in rigorous, duplicated studies to benefit any defined medical condition. It may be worth trying in patients with chronic pain, especially low back pain that is refractory to conventional management. It may also be effective as an adjunct to other drugs for headache and to antiemetics for chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting.

Proponents of evidence-based medicine are sometimes accused of being dismissive of non-western medicine, so I think it’s important to fairly assess the evidence of all therapies, regardless of where they originate. Acupuncture clearly has a proven role in some conditions.