Acupuncture and the growing evidence base
It is vital for the continuing development and credibility of our profession that we can answer our critics with scientific proof of the effectiveness of acupuncture and each year this evidence is growing.
Acupuncture research at the NCA
Here at the NCA we are committed to research and building the evidence base for acupuncture. Our MSc in Acupuncture was the first acupuncture course in the country to offer an MSc option from scratch. Our graduates make a substantial contribution to research within the profession and can go on to undertake PhDs.
Our research wing the Foundation for Research into Traditional Chinese Medicine (FRTCM) was set up in 1990 to further the cause of research into acupuncture. We have collaborated on research projects such as a major back pain research study and regularly carry out in-house research projects in our teaching clinics. Funds from the FRTCM are available to assist students in getting their research into publication.
We are now running two new online-only MSc courses for acupuncturists and complementary therapists all over the world aimed at developing skills in research and practice.
Hugh MacPherson talks to Marketing Manager Denise Magson about his acupuncture research at the University of York.
A brief history of research into acupuncture
By Hugh MacPherson, College co-founder and Professor of Health Sciences at the University of York.
“Early research into acupuncture explored physiological correlates, identifying that acupuncture has a profound effect on endorphins and neurotransmitters. The impact of acupuncture in modulating the effect of pain has been explored in many neuroimaging studies. As an example, researchers based at the University of York, and under my leadership, explored the effect of acupuncture on brain waves using neuroimaging techniques (1).
What has been important for us researchers is to know whether acupuncture is clinically effective for the many chronic conditions that are prevalent in primary care, especially conditions for which patients are seeking non-pharmacological alternatives. These problematic conditions include chronic musculoskeletal pain, headache and migraine, osteoarthritis, irritable bowel syndrome and depression.
As an example of research that involved acupuncturists at the Northern College of Acupuncture, the York Acupuncture for Back Pain Study was a randomised controlled trial that showed acupuncture reduces low back pain over the longer term (2), a benefit that is also cost-effective (3).
One of the questions posed by scientists is to ask whether or not acupuncture is simply a placebo, albeit a powerful one. This question has been answered definitively by a systematic review of high quality clinical trials of acupuncture for chronic pain, namely musculoskeletal pain in the low back and neck, headache and migraine, and osteoarthritis. Researchers found statistically significant differences between acupuncture and sham acupuncture, showing that acupuncture is unequivocally more effective than a placebo, as well as more effective than standard conventional medical care (4).
Beyond chronic pain, recent evidence from trials conducted by us at the Department of Health Sciences, University of York, has shown that acupuncture is statistically significantly better than usual care for irritable bowel syndrome (5), depression (6) and chronic neck pain (7). And finally, in a ground-breaking network meta-analysis, a research team at the Centre for Reviews and Dissemination at the University of York found that acupuncture is as good as, or better than, other physical therapies for osteoarthritis of the knee (8). The combined effect of these research studies has created a critical mass of evidence that will feed into policy and practice over the years to come."
Course Director Lara McClure
"Part of my job is to enthuse and enlighten our students about the value of being a "research literate practitioner", although many are quite skeptical about this at the start of their training! The principle is that our graduates have the ability to understand and interpret up-to-date clinical evidence, and bring this to the treatment of their patients. Patients themselves are often aware of recent research in the age of the internet, and it’s important that practitioners are able to engage with patients and other healthcare professionals about research issues in a well-informed and confident way. Skeptical students soon realise that research is an essential part of their clinical toolkit!"