Neck pain is one of the three most frequently reported complaints of the musculoskeletal system. Treatments for neck pain are varied, as are the perceptions of benefits. Acupuncture is sometimes used as an alternative to more traditional treatments for musculoskeletal pain. In this review it was defined as the stimulation of one or more specific points on the body, by the insertion of needles, to achieve a desirable effect. Acupuncture typically includes manual stimulation of needles, but there are commonly used variations, such as electrical stimulation or heat stimulation of the needles, which is called moxibustion [the moxa herb, Artemisia vulgaris, is burned at the handle end of the needle]. Injection acupuncture, in which herbal extracts are injected into acupuncture points, is occasionally used as well.
We included 10 trails (661 participants) in this review that examined the effects of acupuncture on neck pain for individuals with chronic neck pain (lasting for at least three months). One study also included individuals with neck pain that lasted for at least six weeks, but they considered it to be chronic. Acupuncture was compared to sham acupuncture, waiting list, other sham treatments (sham laser, sham TENS) or other treatments (mobilization, massage, traction). Acupuncture treatments appear to be safe and only minor, transient and benign adverse effects were reported in the trials.
The trials were of moderate methodological quality, but the number of participants in each trial was relatively low. There was a range of individuals studied, acupuncture techniques used and outcomes measured, so we could not combine the results of the trials to get an overall picture of the effectiveness of acupuncture. Therefore, we could only draw limited conclusions.
Individuals with chronic neck pain who received acupuncture reported, on average, better pain relief immediately after treatment and in the short-term than those who received sham treatments. Individuals with chronic neck pain with symptoms radiating to the arms who received acupuncture reported, on average, better pain relief in the short-term than those who were on a waiting list.