Acupuncture treatment for pain: systematic review of randomised clinical trials with acupuncture, placebo acupuncture, and no acupuncture groups

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 28 January 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:a3115
  1. Matias Vested Madsen, physician,
  2. Peter C Gøtzsche, director,
  3. Asbjørn Hróbjartsson, senior researcher
  1. 1Nordic Cochrane Centre, Rigshospitalet, Department 3343, Blegdamsvej 9, DK-2100 Copenhagen, Denmark
  1. Correspondence to: A Hróbjartsson ah{at}
  • Accepted 20 October 2008


Objectives To study the analgesic effect of acupuncture and placebo acupuncture and to explore whether the type of the placebo acupuncture is associated with the estimated effect of acupuncture.

Design Systematic review and meta-analysis of three armed randomised clinical trials.

Data sources Cochrane Library, Medline, Embase, Biological Abstracts, and PsycLIT.

Data extraction and analysis Standardised mean differences from each trial were used to estimate the effect of acupuncture and placebo acupuncture. The different types of placebo acupuncture were ranked from 1 to 5 according to assessment of the possibility of a physiological effect, and this ranking was meta-regressed with the effect of acupuncture.

Data synthesis Thirteen trials (3025 patients) involving a variety of pain conditions were eligible. The allocation of patients was adequately concealed in eight trials. The clinicians managing the acupuncture and placebo acupuncture treatments were not blinded in any of the trials. One clearly outlying trial (70 patients) was excluded. A small difference was found between acupuncture and placebo acupuncture: standardised mean difference −0.17 (95% confidence interval −0.26 to −0.08), corresponding to 4 mm (2 mm to 6 mm) on a 100 mm visual analogue scale. No statistically significant heterogeneity was present (P=0.10, I2=36%). A moderate difference was found between placebo acupuncture and no acupuncture: standardised mean difference −0.42 (−0.60 to −0.23). However, considerable heterogeneity (P<0.001, I2=66%) was also found, as large trials reported both small and large effects of placebo. No association was detected between the type of placebo acupuncture and the effect of acupuncture (P=0.60).

Conclusions A small analgesic effect of acupuncture was found, which seems to lack clinical relevance and cannot be clearly distinguished from bias. Whether needling at acupuncture points, or at any site, reduces pain independently of the psychological impact of the treatment ritual is unclear.


  • Contributors: AH and PCG had the idea for the study. PCG did the first data analyses, and AH did the final analyses. MVM wrote the first draft of the protocol and the paper. AH wrote the final draft of the paper and did the literature searches. All authors contributed to extracting and interpreting data and to revising the protocol and manuscript. AH and PCG are the guarantors.

  • Funding: None.

  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • Ethical approval: Not needed.

  • Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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