by Nicole Ostrow for

Acupuncture, an ancient Chinese therapy that inserts needles into the body, reduced back and neck pain, arthritis and headaches, according to the largest analysis of the treatment.

Data compiled from 29 studies of almost 18,000 people found that acupuncture was better at relieving pain than not having the treatment at all or undergoing a sham procedure, according to research reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine today.

About 3 million U.S. adults get acupuncture each year, mostly for chronic pain, the authors wrote. Doctors don’t know why the ancient Chinese therapy can help relieve pain and more studies are needed to determine how the treatment fits with remedies such as drugs, surgery and physical and behavioral therapy, said Andrew Vickers, the lead author of the analysis.

“We thought for a long time that the reason why acupuncture worked was just because people believed it work,” Vickers, a researcher at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, said in a Sept. 7 telephone interview. “We now know that the effect of acupuncture goes above and beyond the placebo effect. Acupuncture is a reasonable option for chronic pain.”

Traditional Chinese medicine explains acupuncture as a technique for balancing the flow of energy in a person’s body, according to the Mayo Clinic. Inserting needles into specific points along pathways in the body changes the flow.

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