Nine weekly sessions of acupuncture lessen perceived pain intensity, and improve functional capacity and quality of life, in people diagnosed with the blanket pain condition called fibromyalgia.

Fibromyalgia diagnoses are based on claims of chronic widespread pain, along with fatigue, disordered sleep patterns, and/or depression.  Surveys show that 90% of people who have fibromyalgia try some form of alternative medicine, including massage, hydrotherapy, and acupuncture. Clinical trials have shown acupuncture doesn't work but the authors of the new paper say the lack of efficacy is because those were clinical trials of standard, rather than individually tailored, treatment.

In a bid to find out if a personalized approach would make a difference, the researchers compared individually tailored acupuncture treatment with sham treatment in 153 adults, all of whom had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Both the real and simulated treatments, to which participants were randomly assigned, were provided in nine weekly sessions, each lasting 20 minutes. Participants continued to take the usual drugs they had been prescribed to alleviate symptoms (painkillers and antidepressants).

To evaluate the impact of both approaches, participants were asked about perceived levels of pain, depression, and health related quality of life (physical and mental), using validated scoring systems before treatment began, and then again 10 weeks, 6 months, and 12 months afterwards.

They were also asked about changes in the overall impact of their condition, as measured by the Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire, or FIQ for short, at 10 weeks, 6 and 12 months.

Analysis of the results showed that after 10 weeks, perceived pain intensity was lower among those given real acupuncture. Their pain scores had dropped by an average of 41%, compared with an average of 27% for those given the simulated treatment.

Significant differences persisted after a year, with an average fall of 20% in the pain score among those treated with the real thing compared with just over 6% for those given the simulated treatment.

FIQ scores also differed significantly between the two groups at all three time points, with reductions of 35%, 25%, and just over 22% for those given tailored acupuncture compared with 24.5%, just over 11%, and 5%, for those given simulated acupuncture.

Other aspects of pain intensity, including pressure pain threshold and the number of tender points also improved significantly more in the group given real acupuncture after 10 weeks, as did measures of fatigue, anxiety, and depression.

These differences were also evident after a year, although the researchers caution that participants were using higher levels of antidepressants after a year, which may have artificially inflated the positive outcomes.

Side effects were few and mild, prompting the researchers to suggest that tailored acupuncture may be a viable treatment for fibromyalgia.

Published in Acupuncture in Medicine.