Fibromyalgia affects as many as 2.8 million people in the UK, according to Arthritis Research UK. Symptoms of the condition include pain across the body, sleep problems and headaches. The NHS says fibromyalgia is a “long-term condition that causes pain all over the body.” Treatment for the condition can involve medication, more exercise and changes to your diet. According to the Mayo Clinic, acupuncture could help relieve pain caused by the condition.
“Acupuncture is a Chinese medical system based on restoring normal balance of life forces by inserting very fine needles through the skin to various depths,” explained the Mayo Clinic on its website.
“According to Western theories of acupuncture, the needles cause changes in blood flow and levels of neurotransmitters in the brain and spinal cord. Some studies indicate that acupuncture helps relieve fibromyalgia symptoms, while others show no benefit.”
It lists acupuncture under “alternative medicine” for fibromyalgia that may work, alongside massage therapy, and yoga and tai chi.
Concern over painkiller addiction rates among US military personnel and veterans has led to interest in a technique known as battlefield acupuncture.
Thousands of servicemen and women who survived the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have since become casualties of an opioid abuse epidemic that has claimed an estimated 165,000 lives between 1999 and 2014.
As opioid prescription rates soared between 2004 and 2012, veterans received a disproportionate amount of the drugs for pain management.
One in five former personnel who served after the 9/11 terrorist attacks has been prescribed an opioid, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans are twice as likely to die from an accidental drug overdose as the rest of the population. Now military doctors and physicians are hoping that a cluster of tiny gold-plated needles and a simple treatment programme can help many of their patients live relatively pain-free without risk of addiction.
Battlefield acupuncture (BFA) was developed in 2001 by Richard Niemtzow, a retired US air force medical colonel, as a quick-working alternative to traditional pain relief and is becoming more widespread across the military.
Practitioners place the roughly 2mm long needles in sequence into five points in each ear and leave them in place until they fall out several days later. Unlike traditional acupuncture, which first originated in China about 8,000 years ago and requires years of study, military medics can be trained in BFA in a few hours.
Another benefit is that patients can continue to participate in work and life as they are unimpaired by drowsiness or other side effects.
Military pilots, for instance, can still fly, said Lynda Vu, an air force colonel who recently administered BFA on deployment in Qatar. “This allows personnel to go back to the fight with minimal impact to continuing missions,” she told the Military Times, an independent news organisation covering the US armed forces.
As with other forms of acupuncture the practice is, however, dogged by scepticism among some scientists over its medical benefits.
Harriet Hall, another retired US air force colonel who is also a surgeon and family physician, wrote that battlefield acupuncture techniques and other examples of “pseudoscience in the military” were “wasting money, perpetuating myths, and putting our troops in danger”.
Acupuncture may be an effective way of easing severe period pain, a South Korean review of 27 studies suggests.
Researchers said there was "promising evidence" for acupuncture in treating cramps, but that more work was needed.
In the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, they noted two studies found little difference between real and sham acupuncture in treating pain.
Acupuncture is a less contentious form of complementary medicine than some, but its value is still disputed.
Period pain can be severe in some women and may be accompanied by nausea, diarrhoea, migraine and backache. Common treatments include pain killers, applying heat and exercise - although a recent study questioned the efficacy of the latter.
This latest review involved 27 studies - which included nearly 3,000 women. They addressed a variety of forms of acupuncture - from classical to acupoint injection.
Author Jo Marchant
Large study suggests acupuncture could help women stick with unpleasant cancer treatments.
One of the largest-ever clinical trials into whether acupuncture can relieve pain in cancer patients has reignited a debate over the role of this contested technique in cancer care.
Oncologists who conducted a trial of real and sham acupuncture in 226 women at 11 different cancer centres across the United States say their results — presented on 7 December at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in Texas — conclude that the treatment significantly reduces pain in women receiving hormone therapy for breast cancer. They suggest it could help patients stick to life-saving cancer treatments, potentially improving survival rates. But sceptics say it is almost impossible to conduct completely rigorous double-blinded trials of acupuncture.
Interest in acupuncture has grown because of concerns over the use of opioid-based pain-relief drugs, which can have nasty side effects and are extremely addictive. Many cancer centres in the United States therefore offer complementary therapies for pain relief. Almost 90% of US National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centres suggest that patients try acupuncture, and just over 70% offer it as a treatment for side effects1. That horrifies sceptics such as Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine and founder of the blog Science-Based Medicine. Acupuncture has no scientific basis, he says; recommending it is “telling patients that magic works”.
But Dawn Hershman, an oncologist at Columbia University Medical Centre in New York City, decided to investigate whether acupuncture could help to reduce the pain caused by aromatase inhibitors, one of the most commonly used treatments for breast cancer. These drugs lower oestrogen levels and, when taken over five to ten years, they reduce the risk that the cancer will recur. But they cause side effects, especially arthritis-like pain, which can cause up to half of women to take the medication irregularly, or to stop taking it altogether.
Author NICHOLAS BAKALAR
Acupuncture can relieve wrist pain, and researchers have tracked the brain and nervous system changes that may help explain why.
Scientists randomized 80 people with mild or moderate carpal tunnel syndrome — pain caused by nerve compression at the wrist — to one of three groups. The first received acupuncture at the wrist and ankle. The second got acupuncture at the wrist alone. And the third received sham acupuncture, using “fake” needles near the affected wrist, as a placebo. Using functional M.R.I. and nerve conduction tests before and after the procedures, they measured the effect on brain and nerves.
All three groups found relief from pain, but both of the true acupuncture groups showed measurable physiological improvements in pain centers in the brain and nerves, while sham acupuncture did not produce such changes. Improvement in brain measures predicted greater pain relief three months after the tests, a long-term effect that placebo did not provide. The study is in Brain.
“What’s really interesting here is that we’re evaluating acupuncture using objective outcomes,” said the senior author, Vitaly Napadow, a researcher at Harvard. Sham acupuncture was good at relieving pain temporarily, he said, but true acupuncture had objective physiological — and enduring — effects.
“Acupuncture is a safe, low-risk, low side-effect intervention,” he continued. “It’s perfect for a first-line approach, and it’s something patients should consider before trying more invasive procedures like surgery.”