Acupuncture significantly reduces both pain and painkiller use following surgeries including Cesarean sections, research has shown.
In one study, published in the Chinese Medical Journal in 2009, researchers from Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan assigned 60 women who had undergone C-sections either to a control group or to a group that received pain treatment via acupuncture or electro-acupuncture.
They found that compared with the control group, women in the acupuncture group had significantly lower pain scores in the two hours following surgery, requested morphine an average of 10 minutes later, and used 30 to 35 percent less morphine within the first 24 hours after surgery. They also experienced significantly fewer opioid-related side effects.
Acupuncture for pain relief
Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medical practice that consists of inserting thin needles into specific bodily locations (meridians), as indicated by the problem being treated. A growing body of scientific research now supports the effectiveness of acupuncture in treating a wide variety of health conditions, particularly pain. Its use is now covered by many private insurance plans.
Indeed, the Cesarean study is not the first to link acupuncture to lower painkiller use following surgery. A study conducted by researchers from Duke University and presented at a 2008 conference of the American Society for Anesthesiology reviewed the results of 15 separate clinical trials involving the use of acupuncture either preceding or following surgery. Whether undergone before and after surgery, acupuncture led to significantly lower pain levels and use of painkillers in post-surgical patients.
Less painkiller use also meant fewer side effects.
Participants who had not received acupuncture were 1.5 times more likely to experience nausea, 1.6 times more likely to experience dizziness, and 3.5 times more likely to experience urinary retention problems related to painkiller use.
Acupuncture appears to be highly effective for the treatment of all types of pain, not simply post-surgical pain.
In a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2008, 1,162 adults with chronic-lower back pain were randomly assigned to be treated either with traditional acupuncture, "sham" acupuncture (in which needles were not inserted at the appropriate meridians), or the standard Western treatment of drugs combined with exercise.
The researchers found that only 27 percent of participants in the Western treatment group reported at least a 33 percent decrease in pain and an improvement in their ability to function, compared with 44 percent of the sham acupuncture participants and 48 percent of the traditional acupuncture participants.
Another meta-analysis, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2012, reviewed the data from 29 prior studies involving almost 18,000 people.
Participants in the original studies had suffered from chronic pain due to causes including arthritis, recurring headaches, and back, neck and shoulder pain. All participants had been assigned either to acupuncture, sham acupuncture or standard Western treatments (including drugs and physical therapy). The researchers found that on a pain scale of 100, the average participant had a pain score of 60 at the start of any given study.
After Western treatment, the score dropped to 43, compared with a drop to 35 for sham acupuncture and 30 for traditional acupuncture.
Findings such as these have led some researchers to speculate that much of acupuncture's pain-relieving benefit comes from the placebo effect.
But why it works is less important than the fact that it does work, says researcher Andrew Avins of the University of California-San Francisco. Writing in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2012, he suggested that the scientific evidence now supports offering all patients acupuncture for pain relief.