To update my article of 2008, I have searched the Cochrane Library for all Cochrane reviews specifically targeted at acupuncture or related interventions such as acupressure, electro-acupuncture and moxibustion (on 1/6/2020). More general reviews which included some evidence on acupuncture but were not specifically on this topic (e.g. complementary therapies for enuresis) were omitted.

It turned out that almost all the 32 reviews available in 2008 had been updated (some several times), a few had been abandoned and many new reviews have been added. In fact, the 32 reviews of 2008 have today grown into 54.

Here are the conclusions of and links to these papers:

  1. BELL’S PALSY The quality of the included trials was inadequate to allow any conclusion about the efficacy of acupuncture. More research with high quality trials is needed.
  2. PRIMARY DYSMENORRHOEA There is insufficient evidence to demonstrate whether or not acupuncture or acupressure are effective in treating primary dysmenorrhoea, and for most comparisons no data were available on adverse events. The quality of the evidence was low or very low for all comparisons. The main limitations were risk of bias, poor reporting, inconsistency and risk of publication bias.
  3. PREVENTION OF EPISODIC MIGRAINE The available evidence suggests that adding acupuncture to symptomatic treatment of attacks reduces the frequency of headaches. Contrary to the previous findings, the updated evidence also suggests that there is an effect over sham, but this effect is small. The available trials also suggest that acupuncture may be at least similarly effective as treatment with prophylactic drugs. Acupuncture can be considered a treatment option for patients willing to undergo this treatment. As for other migraine treatments, long‐term studies, more than one year in duration, are lacking.
  4. RHEUMATOID ARTHRITIS Although the results of the study on electroacupuncture show that electroacupuncture may be beneficial to reduce symptomatic knee pain in patients with RA 24 hours and 4 months post treatment, the reviewers concluded that the poor quality of the trial, including the small sample size preclude its recommendation. The reviewers further conclude that acupuncture has no effect on ESR, CRP, pain, patient’s global assessment, number of swollen joints, number of tender joints, general health, disease activity and reduction of analgesics. These conclusions are limited by methodological considerations such as the type of acupuncture (acupuncture vs electroacupuncture), the site of intervention, the low number of clinical trials and the small sample size of the included studies.
  5. PREVENTION OF TENSION TYPE HEADACHE: The available results suggest that acupuncture is effective for treating frequent episodic or chronic tension‐type headaches, but further trials ‐ particularly comparing acupuncture with other treatment options ‐ are needed.
  6. SHOULDER PAIN Due to a small number of clinical and methodologically diverse trials, little can be concluded from this review. There is little evidence to support or refute the use of acupuncture for shoulder pain although there may be short‐term benefit with respect to pain and function. There is a need for further well designed clinical trials.
  7. EPILEPSY Available RCTs are small, heterogeneous and have high risk of bias. The current evidence does not support acupuncture for treating epilepsy.
  8. CHRONIC ASTHMA There is not enough evidence to make recommendations about the value of acupuncture in asthma treatment. Further research needs to consider the complexities and different types of acupuncture.
  9. POLYCYSTIC OVARIAN SYNDROME For true acupuncture versus sham acupuncture we cannot exclude clinically relevant differences in live birth rate, multiple pregnancy rate, ovulation rate, clinical pregnancy rate or miscarriage. Number of intermenstrual days may improve in participants receiving true acupuncture compared to sham acupuncture. True acupuncture probably worsens adverse events compared to sham acupuncture. No studies reported data on live birth rate and multiple pregnancy rate for the other comparisons: physical exercise or no intervention, relaxation and clomiphene. Studies including Diane‐35 did not measure fertility outcomes as the women in these trials did not seek fertility.We are uncertain whether acupuncture improves ovulation rate (measured by ultrasound three months post treatment) compared to relaxation or Diane‐35. The other comparisons did not report on this outcome.Adverse events were recorded in the acupuncture group for the comparisons physical exercise or no intervention, clomiphene and Diane‐35. These included dizziness, nausea and subcutaneous haematoma. Evidence was very low quality with very wide CIs and very low event rates.There are only a limited number of RCTs in this area, limiting our ability to determine effectiveness of acupuncture for PCOS.
  10. CHRONIC HEPATITIS B The clinical effects of acupuncture for chronic hepatitis B remain unknown. The included trials lacked data on all‐cause mortality, health‐related quality of life, serious adverse events, hepatitis‐B related mortality, and hepatitis‐B related morbidity. The vast number of excluded trials lacked clear descriptions of their design and conduct. Whether acupuncture influences adverse events considered not to be serious is uncertain. It remains unclear if acupuncture affects HBeAg, and if it is associated with reduction in detectable HBV DNA. Based on available data from only one or two small trials on adverse events considered not to be serious and on the surrogate outcomes HBeAg and HBV DNA, the certainty of evidence is very low. In view of the wide usage of acupuncture, any conclusion that one might try to draw in the future should be based on data on patient and clinically relevant outcomes, assessed in large, high‐quality randomised sham‐controlled trials with homogeneous groups of participants and transparent funding.
  11. ENDOMETRIOSIS The evidence to support the effectiveness of acupuncture for pain in endometriosis is limited, based on the results of only a single study that was included in this review. This review highlights the necessity for developing future studies that are well‐designed, double‐blinded, randomised controlled trials that assess various types of acupuncture in comparison to conventional therapies.
  12. VASCULAR DEMENTIA The effectiveness of acupuncture for vascular dementia is uncertain. More evidence is required to show that vascular dementia can be treated effectively by acupuncture. There are no RCTs and high quality trials are few. Randomized double‐blind placebo‐controlled trials are urgently needed.
  13. FUNCTIONAL DYSPEPSIA It remains unknown whether manual acupuncture or electroacupuncture is more effective or safer than other treatments for patients with FD.
  14. SMOKING CESSATION Although pooled estimates suggest possible short‐term effects there is no consistent, bias‐free evidence that acupuncture, acupressure, or laser therapy have a sustained benefit on smoking cessation for six months or more. However, lack of evidence and methodological problems mean that no firm conclusions can be drawn. Electrostimulation is not effective for smoking cessation. Well‐designed research into acupuncture, acupressure and laser stimulation is justified since these are popular interventions and safe when correctly applied, though these interventions alone are likely to be less effective than evidence‐based interventions.
  15. RESTLESS LEG SYNDROME There is insufficient evidence to determine whether acupuncture is an efficacious and safe treatment for RLS. Further well‐designed, large‐scale clinical trials are needed.
  16. COCAINE DEPENDENCE There is currently no evidence that auricular acupuncture is effective for the treatment of cocaine dependence. The evidence is not of high quality and is inconclusive. Further randomised trials of auricular acupuncture may be justified.
  17. LABOUR PAIN Acupuncture in comparison to sham acupuncture may increase satisfaction with pain management and reduce use of pharmacological analgesia. Acupressure in comparison to a combined control and usual care may reduce pain intensity. However, for other comparisons of acupuncture and acupressure, we are uncertain about the effects on pain intensity and satisfaction with pain relief due to very low‐certainty evidence. Acupuncture may have little to no effect on the rates of caesarean or assisted vaginal birth. Acupressure probably reduces the need for caesarean section in comparison to a sham control. There is a need for further high‐quality research that include sham controls and comparisons to usual care and report on the outcomes of sense of control in labour, satisfaction with the childbirth experience or satisfaction with pain relief.
  18. ISCAEMIC ENCEPHALOPATHY The rationale for acupuncture in neonates with HIE is unclear and the evidence from randomized controlled trial is lacking. Therefore, we do not recommend acupuncture for the treatment of HIE in neonates. High quality randomized controlled trials on acupuncture for HIE in neonates are needed.
  19. LOW BACK PAIN The data do not allow firm conclusions about the effectiveness of acupuncture for acute low‐back pain. For chronic low‐back pain, acupuncture is more effective for pain relief and functional improvement than no treatment or sham treatment immediately after treatment and in the short‐term only. Acupuncture is not more effective than other conventional and “alternative” treatments. The data suggest that acupuncture and dry‐needling may be useful adjuncts to other therapies for chronic low‐back pain. Because most of the studies were of lower methodological quality, there certainly is a further need for higher quality trials in this area.
  20. AUTISM Current evidence does not support the use of acupuncture for treatment of ASD. There is no conclusive evidence that acupuncture is effective for treatment of ASD in children and no RCTs have been carried out with adults. Further high quality trials of larger size and longer follow‐up are needed.
  21. CARPAL TUNNEL SYNDROME Acupuncture and laser acupuncture may have little or no effect in the short term on symptoms of CTS in comparison with placebo or sham acupuncture. It is uncertain whether acupuncture and related interventions are more or less effective in relieving symptoms of CTS than corticosteroid nerve blocks, oral corticosteroids, vitamin B12, ibuprofen, splints, or when added to NSAIDs plus vitamins, as the certainty of any conclusions from the evidence is low or very low and most evidence is short term. The included studies covered diverse interventions, had diverse designs, limited ethnic diversity, and clinical heterogeneity. High‐quality randomised controlled trials (RCTs) are necessary to rigorously assess the effects of acupuncture and related interventions upon symptoms of CTS. Based on moderate to very‐low certainty evidence, acupuncture was associated with no serious adverse events, or reported discomfort, pain, local paraesthesia and temporary skin bruises, but not all studies provided adverse event data.
  22. ADHA A comprehensive search showed that there is no evidence base of randomised or quasi‐randomised controlled trials to support the use of acupuncture as a treatment for ADHD in children and adolescents. Due to the lack of trials, we cannot reach any conclusions about the efficacy and safety of acupuncture for ADHD in children and adolescents. This review highlights the need for further research in this area in the form of high quality, large scale, randomised controlled trials.
  23. FIBROMYALGIA There is low to moderate‐level evidence that compared with no treatment and standard therapy, acupuncture improves pain and stiffness in people with fibromyalgia. There is moderate‐level evidence that the effect of acupuncture does not differ from sham acupuncture in reducing pain or fatigue, or improving sleep or global well‐being. EA is probably better than MA for pain and stiffness reduction and improvement of global well‐being, sleep and fatigue. The effect lasts up to one month, but is not maintained at six months follow‐up. MA probably does not improve pain or physical functioning. Acupuncture appears safe. People with fibromyalgia may consider using EA alone or with exercise and medication. The small sample size, scarcity of studies for each comparison, lack of an ideal sham acupuncture weaken the level of evidence and its clinical implications. Larger studies are warranted.
  24. GLAUCOMA At this time, it is impossible to draw reliable conclusions from available data to support the use of acupuncture for treatment of patients with glaucoma. Because of ethical considerations, RCTs comparing acupuncture alone with standard glaucoma treatment or placebo are unlikely to be justified in countries where the standard of care has already been established.
  25. UTERINE FIBROIDS The effectiveness of acupuncture for the management of uterine fibroids remains uncertain. More evidence is required to establish the efficacy and safety of acupuncture for uterine fibroids. There is a continued need for well designed RCTs with long term follow up.
  26. HIP OSTEOARTHRITIS Acupuncture probably has little or no effect in reducing pain or improving function relative to sham acupuncture in people with hip osteoarthritis. Due to the small sample size in the studies, the confidence intervals include both the possibility of moderate benefits and the possibility of no effect of acupuncture. One unblinded trial found that acupuncture as an addition to routine primary physician care was associated with benefits on pain and function. However, these reported benefits are likely due at least partially to RCT participants’ greater expectations of benefit from acupuncture. Possible side effects associated with acupuncture treatment were minor.
  27. HYPERTENSION At present, there is no evidence for the sustained BP lowering effect of acupuncture that is required for the management of chronically elevated BP. The short‐term effects of acupuncture are uncertain due to the very low quality of evidence. The larger effect shown in non‐sham acupuncture controlled trials most likely reflects bias and is not a true effect. Future RCTs must use sham acupuncture controls and assess whether there is a BP lowering effect of acupuncture that lasts at least seven days.
  28. GASTROPARESISThere is very low‐certainty evidence for a short‐term benefit with acupuncture alone or acupuncture combined with gastrokinetic drugs compared with the drug alone, in terms of the proportion of people who experienced improvement in diabetic gastroparesis. There is evidence of publication bias and a positive bias of small study effects. The reported benefits should be interpreted with great caution because of the unclear overall risk of bias, unvalidated measurements of change in subjective symptoms, publication bias and small study reporting bias, and lack of data on long‐term outcomes; the effects reported in this review may therefore differ significantly from the true effect. One sham‐controlled trial provided low‐certainty evidence of no difference between real and sham acupuncture in terms of short‐term symptom improvement in diabetic gastroparesis, when measured by a validated scale. No studies reported changes in quality of life or the use of medication.Due to the absence of data, no conclusion can be made regarding effects of acupuncture on gastroparesis of other aetiologies. Reports of harm have remained largely incomplete, precluding assessments of the safety of acupuncture in this population. Future research should focus on reducing the sources of bias in the trial design as well as transparent reporting. Harms of interventions should be explicitly reported.
  29. ACUTE STROKE This updated review indicates that apparently improved outcomes with acupuncture in acute stroke are confounded by the risk of bias related to use of open controls. Adverse events related to acupuncture were reported to be minor and usually did not result in stopping treatment. Future studies are needed to confirm or refute any effects of acupuncture in acute stroke. Trials should clearly report the method of randomization, concealment of allocation, and whether blinding of participants, personnel, and outcome assessors was achieved, while paying close attention to the effects of acupuncture on long‐term functional outcomes.
  30. INSOMNIA Due to poor methodological quality, high levels of heterogeneity and publication bias, the current evidence is not sufficiently rigorous to support or refute acupuncture for treating insomnia. Larger high‐quality clinical trials are required.
  31. SCHIZOPHRENIA Limited evidence suggests that acupuncture may have some antipsychotic effects as measured on global and mental state with few adverse effects. Better designed large studies are needed to fully and fairly test the effects of acupuncture for people with schizophrenia.
  32. ACUTE HORDEOLUM Low‐certainty evidence suggests that acupuncture with or without conventional treatments may provide short‐term benefits for treating acute hordeolum when compared with conventional treatments alone. The certainty of the evidence was low to very low mainly due to small sample sizes, inadequate allocation concealment, lack of masking of the outcome assessors, inadequate or unclear randomization method, and a high or unreported number of dropouts. All RCTs were conducted in China, which may limit their generalizability to non‐Chinese populations.Because no RCTs included a valid sham acupuncture control, we cannot rule out a potential expectation/placebo effect associated with acupuncture. As resolution is based on clinical observation, the outcome could be influenced by the observer’s knowledge of the assigned treatment. Adverse effects of acupuncture were reported sparsely in the included RCTs, and, when reported, were rare. RCTs with better methodology, longer follow‐up, and which are conducted among other populations are warranted to provide more general evidence regarding the benefit of acupuncture to treat acute hordeolum.
  33. STROKE REHABILITATION From the available evidence, acupuncture may have beneficial effects on improving dependency, global neurological deficiency, and some specific neurological impairments for people with stroke in the convalescent stage, with no obvious serious adverse events. However, most included trials were of inadequate quality and size. There is, therefore, inadequate evidence to draw any conclusions about its routine use. Rigorously designed, randomised, multi‐centre, large sample trials of acupuncture for stroke are needed to further assess its effects.
  34. DEPRESSION The reduction in severity of depression was less when acupuncture was compared with control acupuncture than when acupuncture was compared with no treatment control, although in both cases, results were rated as providing low‐quality evidence. The reduction in severity of depression with acupuncture given alone or in conjunction with medication versus medication alone is uncertain owing to the very low quality of evidence. The effect of acupuncture compared with psychological therapy is unclear. The risk of adverse events with acupuncture is also unclear, as most trials did not report adverse events adequately. Few studies included follow‐up periods or assessed important outcomes such as quality of life. High‐quality randomised controlled trials are urgently needed to examine the clinical efficacy and acceptability of acupuncture, as well as its effectiveness, compared with acupuncture controls, medication, or psychological therapies.
  35. GAG REFLEX We found very low‐certainty evidence from four trials that was insufficient to conclude if there is any benefit of acupuncture, acupressure or laser at P6 point in reducing gagging and allowing successful completion of dental procedures. We did not find any evidence on any other interventions for managing the gag reflex during dental treatment. More well‐designed and well‐reported trials evaluating different interventions are needed.
  36. PERIPHERAL JOINT OSTEOARTHRITIS Sham‐controlled trials show statistically significant benefits; however, these benefits are small, do not meet our pre‐defined thresholds for clinical relevance, and are probably due at least partially to placebo effects from incomplete blinding. Waiting list‐controlled trials of acupuncture for peripheral joint osteoarthritis suggest statistically significant and clinically relevant benefits, much of which may be due to expectation or placebo effects.
  37. ELBOW PAIN There is insufficient evidence to either support or refute the use of acupuncture (either needle or laser) in the treatment of lateral elbow pain. This review has demonstrated needle acupuncture to be of short term benefit with respect to pain, but this finding is based on the results of 2 small trials, the results of which were not able to be combined in meta‐analysis. No benefit lasting more than 24 hours following treatment has been demonstrated. No trial assessed or commented on potential adverse effect. Further trials, utilising appropriate methods and adequate sample sizes, are needed before conclusions can be drawn regarding the effect of acupuncture on tennis elbow.
  38. MUMPS There is no evidence to determine the efficacy and safety of acupuncture in the treatment of children with mumps, although the excluded studies suggest that acupuncture is effective in improving swelling and pain of the parotid gland and assisting the body temperature to return to normal. We cannot make any recommendations for practice and nor can the results be generalised to clinical practice.
  39. MENOPAUSAL HOT FLUSHES We found insufficient evidence to determine whether acupuncture is effective for controlling menopausal vasomotor symptoms. When we compared acupuncture with sham acupuncture, there was no evidence of a significant difference in their effect on menopausal vasomotor symptoms. When we compared acupuncture with no treatment there appeared to be a benefit from acupuncture, but acupuncture appeared to be less effective than HT. These findings should be treated with great caution as the evidence was low or very low quality and the studies comparing acupuncture versus no treatment or HT were not controlled with sham acupuncture or placebo HT. Data on adverse effects were lacking.
  40. ASSISTED CONCEPTION There is no evidence that acupuncture improves live birth or pregnancy rates in assisted conception.
  41. HICCUPS A total of four studies (305 participants) met the inclusion criteria. All of these studies sought to determine the effectiveness of different acupuncture techniques in the treatment of persistent and intractable hiccups. All four studies had a high risk of bias, did not compare the intervention with placebo, and failed to report side effects or adverse events for either the treatment or control groups. Due to methodological differences we were unable to perform a meta‐analysis of the results. No studies investigating pharmacological interventions for persistent and intractable hiccups met the inclusion criteria.
  42. DYSPHAGIA IN ACUTE STROKE There is not enough evidence to make any conclusion about the therapeutic effect of acupuncture for dysphagia after acute stroke. High quality and large scale randomised controlled trials are needed.
  43. MOXIBUSTION FOR BREECH PRESENTATION This review found limited evidence to support the use of moxibustion for correcting breech presentation. There is some evidence to suggest that the use of moxibustion may reduce the need for oxytocin. When combined with acupuncture, moxibustion may result in fewer births by caesarean section; and when combined with postural management techniques may reduce the number of non‐cephalic presentations at birth, however, there is a need for well‐designed randomised controlled trials to evaluate moxibustion for breech presentation which report on clinically relevant outcomes as well as the safety of the intervention.
  44. CANCER PAIN There is insufficient evidence to judge whether acupuncture is effective in treating cancer pain in adults.
  45. URINARY INCONTINENCE The effect of acupuncture for stress urinary incontinence for adults is uncertain. There is not enough evidence to determine whether acupuncture is more effective than drug treatment.
  46. INDUCTION OF LABOUR Overall, there was no clear benefit from acupuncture or acupressure in reducing caesarean section rate. The quality of the evidence varied between low to high. Few trials reported on neonatal morbidity or maternal mortality outcomes. Acupuncture showed some benefit in improving cervical maturity, however, more well‐designed trials are needed. Future trials could include clinically relevant safety outcomes.
  47. NEUROPATHIC PAIN Due to the limited data available, there is insufficient evidence to support or refute the use of acupuncture for neuropathic pain in general, or for any specific neuropathic pain condition when compared with sham acupuncture or other active therapies. Five studies are still ongoing and seven studies are awaiting classification due to the unclear treatment duration, and the results of these studies may influence the current findings.
  48. PREMENSTRUAL SYNDROME The limited evidence available suggests that acupuncture and acupressure may improve both physical and psychological symptoms of PMS when compared to a sham control. There was insufficient evidence to determine whether there was a difference between the groups in rates of adverse events. There is no evidence comparing acupuncture or acupressure versus current ISPMD recommended treatments for PMS such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Further research is required, using validated outcome measures for PMS, adequate blinding and suitable comparator groups reflecting current best practice.
  49. IRRITABLE BOWEL SYNDROME Sham‐controlled RCTs have found no benefits of acupuncture relative to a credible sham acupuncture control for IBS symptom severity or IBS‐related quality of life. In comparative effectiveness Chinese trials, patients reported greater benefits from acupuncture than from two antispasmodic drugs (pinaverium bromide and trimebutine maleate), both of which have been shown to provide a modest benefit for IBS. Future trials may help clarify whether or not these reportedly greater benefits of acupuncture relative to pharmacological therapies are due entirely to patients’ preferences for acupuncture or greater expectations of improvement on acupuncture relative to drug therapy.
  50. ANKLE SPRAIN The currently available evidence from a very heterogeneous group of randomised and quasi‐randomised controlled trials evaluating the effects of acupuncture for the treatment of acute ankle sprains does not provide reliable support for either the effectiveness or safety of acupuncture treatments, alone or in combination with other non‐surgical interventions; or in comparison with other non‐surgical interventions. Future rigorous randomised clinical trials with larger sample sizes will be necessary to establish robust clinical evidence concerning the effectiveness and safety of acupuncture treatment for acute ankle sprains.
  51. MYOPAIA Two trials are included in this review but no conclusions can be drawn for the benefit of co‐acupressure for slowing progress of myopia in children. Further evidence in the form of RCTs are needed before any recommendations can be made for the use of acupuncture treatment in clinical use. These trials should compare acupuncture to placebo and have large sample sizes. Other types of acupuncture (such as auricular acupuncture) should be explored further as well as compliance with treatment for at least six months or longer. Axial length elongation of the eye should be investigated for at least one year. The potential to reduce/eliminate pain from acupuncture experienced by children should also be reviewed.
  52. CHRONIC KIDNEY DISEASE There was very low quality of evidence of the short‐term effects of manual acupressure as an adjuvant intervention for fatigue, depression, sleep disturbance and uraemic pruritus in patients undergoing regular haemodialysis. The paucity of evidence indicates that there is little evidence of the effects of other types of acupuncture for other outcomes, including pain, in patients with other stages of CKD. Overall high or unclear risk of bias distorts the validity of the reported benefit of acupuncture and makes the estimated effects uncertain. The incomplete reporting of acupuncture‐related harm does not permit us to assess the safety of acupuncture and related interventions. Future studies should investigate the effects and safety of acupuncture for pain and other common symptoms in patients with CKD and those undergoing dialysis.
  53. REHABILITATION OF BRAIN INJURY The low methodological quality of the included studies does not allow us to make conclusive judgments on the efficacy and safety of acupuncture in either the acute treatment and/or rehabilitation of TBI. Its beneficial role for these indications remains uncertain. Further research with high quality trials is required.
  54. POST-OPERATIVE NAUSEA AND VOMITING There is low‐quality evidence supporting the use of PC6 acupoint stimulation over sham. Compared to the last update in 2009, no further sham comparison trials are needed. We found that there is moderate‐quality evidence showing no difference between PC6 acupoint stimulation and antiemetic drugs to prevent PONV. Further PC6 acupoint stimulation versus antiemetic trials are futile in showing a significant difference, which is a new finding in this update. There is inconclusive evidence supporting the use of a combined strategy of PC6 acupoint stimulation and antiemetic drug over drug prophylaxis, and further high‐quality trials are needed.

The next and last part of this series will provide a few short comments on the current evidence.

Stay tuned!

2 Responses to Acupuncture: an update of the most reliable evidence – PART 2

  • Dear Dr Ernst, could you summarize your results in a table? Many thanks !

  • Human pin cushion treatment for anything and everything. Surely to God it must work for something? In China it has worked for absolutely everything for thousands and thousands of years. Why not in Cochrane Reviews?

    I mean pin cushion treatment cought to be able to cure all living things in the universe of absolutely everything, just like it has done in China for billions of years. I mean we are talking Qi! The essence of the universe! Is there a mysterious negative Qi energy in the West neutralising positive Chinese Qi, perhaps? I mean why did we not discover pin cushion Qi-tuning hundreds of billions of years ago like they did in China? If it’s everywhere and always there.

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