Is acupuncture effective?


There is (of course) one big problem with assessing the effectiveness of acupuncture, and that is the near impossibility to do double blind tests (where both doctors and patients don't know if they're giving/receiving real thing or placebo), as it is difficult to fake acupuncture - well, up to a certain point at least, one can always put the needles in the wrong place (see "acupuncture for migraine prophylaxis" below for an example).

Cochrane Reviews are very helpful in figuring out the effectiveness of medical treatments: each review asks a specific medical question, and goes about answering it by collecting and collating all the studies that have been done on this particular issue. Their goal is to provide an evidence-based tool for making healthcare decisions - in other words, they don't search for the mechanisms behind a specific treatment, but simply assess if it works or not. 

To get a feeling about acupuncture I pulled up the first dozen search results:  

  • Acupuncture for vascular dementia: There is no evidence from randomized controlled trials to determine whether acupuncture provides any effect when treating people with vascular dementia.
  • Acupuncture for schizophrenia: The limited data we found provided mostly equivocal outcomes. Although some of the data did favour acupuncture when combined with antipsychotics, the results came from small studies(*), and further, more comprehensive trials are needed before we can confidently determine the efficacy of acupuncture in the treatment of schizophrenia.
  • Acupuncture for Bell's palsy: Poor quality caused by flaws in study design or reporting (including uncertain method of randomization, allocation concealment and blinding(*)) and clinical differences between trials prevented reliable conclusions about the efficacy of acupuncture. More research with high quality trials is needed.
  • Acupuncture and related interventions for smoking cessation: Acupuncture and related therapies do not appear to help smokers who are trying to quit.
  • Acupuncture for migraine prophylaxis: Collectively, the studies suggest that migraine patients benefit from acupuncture, although the correct placement of needles seems to be less relevant than is usually thought by acupuncturists.
  • Auricular acupuncture for cocaine dependence: The authors conclude that there is no evidence that any form of auricular acupuncture is effective for treating cocaine dependence.
  • Acupuncture for glaucoma:  The effectiveness of acupuncture as a therapeutic modality for glaucoma could not be established.
  • Acupuncture for tension-type headache: The available evidence suggests that acupuncture could be a valuable option for patients suffering from frequent tension-type headache.
  • Acupuncture for depression: There was insufficient evidence that acupuncture can assist with the management of depression.
  • Acupuncture for insomniaMore rigorous studies are needed to assess the efficacy and safety of various forms of acupuncture for treating people with insomnia.
  • Acupuncture for epilepsy: Acupuncture has not yet been proven to be effective and safe for treating people with epilepsy.

Out of 11, 2 are cautiously positive, and 9 are inconclusive or negative. Doesn't look good for acupuncture.


(*) Small test groups and basic protocol errors are usually clear indications that there's something wrong.


  1. Cochrane Reviews