Effectiveness of Acupuncture Therapies to Manage Musculoskeletal Disorders of the Extremities: A Systematic Review

J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2016 Jun;46(6):409-29. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2016.6270. Epub 2016 Apr 26.


Study Design Systematic review. Background Little is known about the effectiveness of acupuncture therapies for musculoskeletal disorders. Objective To assess the effectiveness and safety of acupuncture therapies for musculoskeletal disorders of the extremities. Methods We searched MEDLINE, Embase, CINAHL, PsycINFO, and Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials from 1990 to 2015 for randomized controlled trials, cohort studies, and case-control studies. Eligible studies were appraised with Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network criteria. A best-evidence synthesis was performed to synthesize results from included studies with a low risk of bias. A sensitivity analysis was conducted to determine the impact of excluding studies with a high risk of bias. Results The search revealed 5180 articles; 15 were included (10 with a low risk of bias, 5 with a high risk of bias). The studies with a low risk of bias suggested that (1) traditional needle acupuncture was superior to oral steroids (1 RCT, n = 77) and may be superior to vitamin B1/B6 supplements (1 RCT, n = 64) for carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), and was superior to exercise for Achilles tendinopathy (1 RCT, n = 64). Traditional needle acupuncture did not provide important benefit over placebo for upper extremity pain (1 RCT, n = 128), or no intervention for patellofemoral pain (1 RCT, n = 75), and was inconclusive for shoulder pain (2 RCTs, n = 849), suggesting no important benefit; (2) electroacupuncture may be superior to placebo for shoulder injuries (1 RCT, n = 130) and may not be superior to night splinting for persistent CTS (1 RCT, n = 78); and (3) dry needling may be superior to placebo for plantar fasciitis (1 RCT, n = 84). Sensitivity analysis suggests that including studies with a high risk of bias might have impacted the evidence synthesis in support of managing shoulder pain with traditional needle acupuncture, and that would suggest traditional needle acupuncture may be effective for lateral epicondylitis and piriformis syndrome. Conclusion Evidence for the effectiveness of acupuncture for musculoskeletal disorders of the extremities was inconsistent. Traditional needle acupuncture may be beneficial for CTS and Achilles tendinopathy, but not for nonspecific upper extremity pain and patellofemoral syndrome. Electroacupuncture may be effective for shoulder injuries and may show similar effectiveness to that of night wrist splinting for CTS. The effectiveness of dry needling for plantar fasciitis is equivocal. Level of Evidence Therapy, 1a-. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther 2016;46(6):409-429. Epub 26 Apr 2016. doi:10.2519/jospt.2016.6270.

Keywords: acupuncture therapy; dry needling; electroacupuncture; lower extremity; upper extremity.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Acupuncture Therapy* / adverse effects
  • Acupuncture Therapy* / methods
  • Evidence-Based Medicine / standards*
  • Humans
  • Lower Extremity / injuries*
  • Musculoskeletal Diseases / therapy*
  • Musculoskeletal System / injuries*
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Upper Extremity / injuries*