Fibromyalgia is a condition that causes pain and tenderness in the head, shoulders, upper back, thighs, and abdomen and sufferers also often have headaches, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and sleep problems.
What causes the condition is unknown, and fibromyalgia, as there are no specific laboratory tests for it, is usually diagnosed when a person reports chronic, widespread pain and has tenderness to pressure at particular locations on the body.
There have been many kinds of studies of various treatments for fibromyalgia, but to date none have proved to be highly effective.
Often in desperation, people with fibromyalgia seek out alternative treatments, such as acupuncture.
This ancient Chinese treatment involves placing special needles into specific points of the body to treat medical conditions and pain.
But although mainstream medicine is increasingly recognizing acupuncture as an effective treatment for a variety of disorders, no credible studies as yet have proven that acupuncture helps patients with fibromyalgia.
With previous studies, a common problem has been the lack of good control groups, and patients knew whether they were getting true acupuncture, and this could possibly have influenced the way they reported symptoms.
In order to ascertain whether true acupuncture was more effective at treating fibromyalgia pain than fake acupuncture treatments, 100 patients with fibromyalgia were asked to rate their pain, at least 4, on a scale from 0 (no pain), to 10 (worst pain ever).
The researchers then assigned the group to 12 weeks of twice-weekly treatment with either true acupuncture for fibromyalgia or 1 of 3 comparison groups.
All of the 3 comparison groups were a form of fake acupuncture.
The first group were given acupuncture at points used for the treatment of irregular menstrual periods, the second group had needles inserted at points that are not acupuncture points, and the third group got placement of special needle-like devices that did not pierce the skin.
All patients were instructed to continue whatever other treatments they had been using for fibromyalgia, before the study started.
The researchers then collected patient ratings of pain after 1, 4, 8, and 12 weeks of treatment and at 18 and 24 weeks after treatment was over.
The researchers found that the patients who got true acupuncture had similar pain ratings to patients in the 3 sham acupuncture groups.
The study did have some limitations in that it may have been too small to detect small differences among the groups, and patients were allowed to continue other fibromyalgia therapies during the study.
So it might be argued that this study only considers the use of acupuncture as an addition to other therapies.
In conclusion, the researchers say that the addition of 12 weeks of acupuncture treatment to other treatments already being used, for patients with fibromyalgia, did not provide better pain relief than fake acupuncture.
The full report, a Randomized Clinical Trial of Acupuncture Compared with Sham Acupuncture in Fibromyalgia, is published in the July 2005 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine.
The authors are N.P. Assefi, K.J. Sherman, C. Jacobsen, J. Goldberg, W.R. Smith, and D. Buchwald.