A randomized controlled trial of the use of acupuncture in emergency departments has found the treatment is a safe and effective alternative to pain-relieving drugs for some patients who visit looking for relief from things like a self-reported ankle sprain, a headache (invariably called a migraine) or back pain.

Pain professionals know those are very common, and that people reporting to the emergency room are often looking for prescription drugs. In the case of 528 patients at the emergency departments of the Alfred Hospital, Cabrini Malvern, Epworth Hospital and Northern Hospital between January 2010 and December 2011, who claimed to have pain of at least 4 on a 10-point scale (why else would they be in an emergency room?) instead randomly received one of three types of treatment: acupuncture alone, acupuncture plus pharmacotherapy or pharmacotherapy alone.

One hour after treatment, more than 80 percent continued to have a pain rating of at least 4.   Less than 40 per cent of patients across all three groups felt any significant pain reduction, that being 2 or more pain points. Hardly an endorsement of acupuncture.

Except 48 hours later, they write in Medical Journal of Australia that the vast majority found their treatment acceptable. Almost 83 percent of acupuncture-only patients said they would probably or definitely repeat their treatment, 81 percent in the combined group said that, and 78.2 percent in the pharmacotherapy-only group said it.

What does it mean? To the acupuncture advocates, it means acupuncture works. To science it means the pain went away and they were crediting whatever treatment they think they got.