Acupuncture for Fibromyalgia

What the Evidence Shows

acupuncture needles in a woman's back
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Acupuncture is getting increased attention as a treatment for fibromyalgia. Because the condition is hard to treat, people are often willing to turn to complementary and alternative (CAM) treatments to find relief. One study (Deare) states that 20% of people diagnosed with fibromyalgia try acupuncture within the first two years.

Several features of acupuncture make it desirable for those of us with this condition:

  • It has a low side-effect risk,
  • It doesn't interact negatively with other treatments,
  • If it doesn't work, you can simply stop — there's no weaning-off process,
  • And we can find a lot of anecdotal evidence about its effectiveness.

Of course, anecdotal evidence doesn't equate to scientific proof, leaving you with the question, "Does it really work?" A growing body of research suggests that it does. However, there are still problems with the way the way CAM treatments — and especially acupuncture — are studied.

Acupuncture Studies: The Problems

Medical studies rely on placebos to test treatments against. A placebo needs to be something that doesn't have a treatment effect. If the study's looking at a treatment that comes in a pill, for example, it's easy to simply give the control group a sugar pill.

With acupuncture, though, this raises real difficulties. Participants will obviously know whether someone is inserting needles into their skin. Since traditional acupuncture is based on a system of meridians (energy centers around the body), researchers have used sham acupuncture that involves placing needles in areas outside the meridian system.

Some researchers and acupuncture practitioners argue that sham acupuncture is not truly a placebo—that because we don't know by what mechanism acupuncture works, we can't definitively say that sham acupuncture doesn't have a similar effect to actual acupuncture. Thus, they suggest that when sham acupuncture and traditional acupuncture produce similar results in trials, it's because they're both having an effect on the body.

Another problem is that studies of CAM therapies often don't have the same level of scientific rigor as other kinds of medical trials, which leaves us not knowing how much stock to put in their results.

Studies for Fibromyalgia

Researchers have looked into several types of acupuncture and acupuncture-like treatments in recent years. These include:

  • Traditional acupuncture,
  • Acupuncture with moxibustion (burning a substance called moxa near the skin, also called warm needling),
  • Acupuncture with cupping (a traditional Chinese treatment that involves suction),
  • Dry needling (inserting acupuncture needles or empty syringes into painful areas of muscles),
  • Vibration of acupuncture points,
  • Electroacupuncture, which involves electronic stimulation of acupoints (without needles).

You can find studies showing positive results with most of these techniques as well as those saying there's no improvement in fibromyalgia symptoms.

Reviews of literature published in 2013 (Cao H, Deare) and 2014 (Yang) came to the following conclusions:

  • Acupuncture and similar treatments appear to be effective fibromyalgia treatments compared with medications.
  • Acupuncture combined with drugs and exercise may improve pain thresholds in the short-term.
  • Evidence that acupuncture improves pain and stiffness in fibromyalgia is of low to moderate quality.
  • Electroacupuncture may be superior to traditional acupuncture for pain and stiffness, well-being, sleep, and fatigue.
  • Acupuncture appears safe for people with fibromyalgia.
  • Acupuncture did not appear to reduce pain more effectively than sham acupuncture.
  • Further studies with better designs and larger sample sizes are needed.

A review of acupuncture for rheumatic diseases in general (Amezaga Urruela) came to similar conclusions.

Individual studies have suggested that acupuncture may have the following benefits for people with fibromyalgia:

  • Immediate pain reduction,
  • Improved overall well-being,
  • Reduced pain sensitivity,
  • Global improvement of symptoms.

Is Acupuncture Right for You?

The decision to try acupuncture is, as with any treatment, best made by you and your doctor while looking at the overall picture of your symptoms and other treatments. Remember that what works for one of us may not work for all, so your experience with acupuncture may be different from what you've heard/read from others with fibromyalgia.

Be sure to check with your insurance company to see if acupuncture treatments are covered.

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