Intended for healthcare professionals


Improving acupuncture research: progress, guidance, and future directions

BMJ 2022; 376 doi: (Published 25 February 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;376:o487

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  1. Yu-Qing Zhang1234,
  2. Xianghong Jing35,
  3. Gordon Guyatt26
  1. 1CEBIM (Center for Evidence Based Integrative Medicine)-Clarity Collaboration, Guang'anmen Hospital, China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, Beijing, China.
  2. 2Department of Health Research Methods, Evidence, and Impact, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
  3. 3Institute of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, Beijing, China.
  4. 4Nottingham Ningbo GRADE center, The University of Nottingham Ningbo, China.
  5. 5China Center for Evidence Based Traditional Chinese Medicine, China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, Beijing, China.
  6. 6Department of Medicine, Faculty of Health Sciences, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON, Canada.

Conventional allopathic medicine—medications and surgery used in conventional systems of medicine to treat or prevent disease—is often expensive, can cause side effects and harm, and is not always the optimal treatment for long term conditions such as chronic pain.1 Where conventional treatments have not been successful, acupuncture and other traditional and complementary medicines have potential to play a role in optimal patient care.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) 2019 global report, acupuncture is widely used across the world.2 In some countries acupuncture is covered by health insurance and established regulations. In the US, practitioners administer over 10 million acupuncture treatments annually.3 In the UK, clinicians administer over 4 million acupuncture treatments annually, and it is provided on the NHS.4

Given the widespread use of acupuncture as a complementary therapy alongside conventional medicine, there has been an increase in global research interest and funding support over recent decades. In 2009, the European Commission launched a Good Practice in Traditional Chinese Medicine Research (GP-TCM) funding initiative in 19 countries.5 The GP-TCM grant aimed to investigate the safety and efficacy of acupuncture as well as other traditional Chinese medicine interventions.

In China, acupuncture is an important focus of the national research agenda and receives substantial research funding.6 In 2016, the state council published a national strategy supporting universal access to acupuncture by 2020.6 China has established more than 79 evidence-based traditional Chinese medicine or integrative medicine research centers.

Given the broad clinical application and rapid increase in funding support for acupuncture research, researchers now have additional opportunities to produce high-quality studies. However, for this to be successful, acupuncture research must address both methodological limitations and unique research challenges.

This new collection of articles, published in The BMJ, analyses the progress of developing high quality research studies on acupuncture, summarises the current status, and provides critical methodological guidance regarding the production of clinical evidence on randomised controlled trials, clinical practice guidelines and health economic evidence. It also assesses the number and quality of systematic reviews of acupuncture. We hope that the collection will help inform the development of clinical practice guidelines, health policy, and reimbursement decisions.

The articles document the progress of acupuncture research. In our view, the emerging evidence base on the use of acupuncture warrants further integration and application of acupuncture into conventional medicine. National, regional, and international organisations and health systems should facilitate this process and support further rigorous acupuncture research.


  • This article is part of a collection funded by the special purpose funds for the belt and road, China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, National Natural Science Foundation of China, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, the Innovation Team and Talents Cultivation Program of the National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Special Project of “Lingnan Modernization of Traditional Chinese Medicine” of the 2019 Guangdong Key Research and Development Program, and the Project of First Class Universities and High-level Dual Discipline for Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine. The BMJ commissioned, peer reviewed, edited, and made the decision to publish. Kamran Abbasi was the lead editor for The BMJ. Yu-Qing Zhang advised on commissioning for the collection, designed the topic of the series, and coordinated the author teams. Gordon Guyatt provided valuable advice and guidance.