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Acupuncture May Actually Work for Pain After All

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Acupuncture may truly hold benefits for those suffering from certain forms of chronic pain, a new review of research suggests.

In a review of 29 previous well-designed studies, which together looked at almost 18,000 patients, researchers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center found that acupuncture does, indeed, work for treating four chronic pain conditions: back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, chronic headache and shoulder pain.

Even "placebo" acupuncture, where the practitioner only pretends to place the needle or places the needle in a random site, is effective at relieving pain, though true acupuncture works better.

The review was published Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

In the analysis, the researchers determined that 50 percent of true acupuncture patients experienced pain relief -- in other words, pain levels that were cut in half.  Only 42 percent of sham acupuncture patients and 30 percent of patients who had no acupuncture at all experienced similar pain relief.

The researchers said it is better and more precise than previous reviews because of the high quality standard that was required by the study authors.

"In general, we were interested in acupuncture because clearly it's very controversial," said Dr. Andrew Vickers, the primary author of the study.  "It comes from and involves ideas that aren't found in conventional books of anatomy and physiology."

Complementary and alternative medicine, including acupuncture, has long been a controversial topic in medicine.  About three million Americans undergo acupuncture, mostly for chronic pain.  Even so, given the lack of good evidence, many patients are not referred for acupuncture.

"There is now a solid evidence base for referring patients for acupuncture," Vickers added.

Critics maintain, however, that the clinical relevance of this study is unclear and that most of acupuncture may very well be just a "placebo" effect.

They also note that acupuncture can be very painful and can have serious risks, such as infection or puncturing a lung -- though these occur rarely.

"The problem with acupuncture is that it doesn't last very long; it's like taking a pill," said Dr. Joshua Prager, a board-certified pain specialist at UCLA.  "I do see it as something worth trying, but it only works in a small percentage of my patients."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio