Over its 2500 years of development, a wealth of experience has accumulated in the practice of acupuncture, attesting to the wide range of diseases and conditions that can be effectively treated with this approach. Unlike many other traditional methods of treatment, which tend to be specific to their national or cultural context, acupuncture has been used throughout the world, particularly since the 1970s. In recognition of the increasing worldwide interest in the subject, the World Health Organization (WHO) conducted a symposium on acupuncture in June 1979 in Beijing, China. Physicians practising acupuncture in different countries were invited to identify the conditions that might benefit from this therapy. The participants drew up a list of 43 suitable diseases. However, this list of indications was not based on formal clinical trials conducted in a rigorous scientific manner, and its credibility has been questioned.
The past two decades have seen extensive studies on acupuncture, and great efforts have been made to conduct controlled clinical trials that include the use of “sham” acupuncture or “placebo” acupuncture controls. Although still limited in number because of the difficulties of carrying out such trials, convincing reports, based on sound research methodology, have been published. In addition, experimental investigations on the mechanism of acupuncture have been carried out. This research, while aimed chiefly at answering how acupuncture works, may also provide evidence in support of its effectiveness.
In 1991, a progress report on traditional medicine and modern health care was submitted by the Director-General of WHO to the Forty-fourth World Health Assembly1. The report pointed out that in countries where acupuncture forms part of the cultural heritage, its use in an integrated approach to modern and traditional medicine presents no difficulty. However, in countries where modern Western medicine is the foundation of health care, the ethical use of acupuncture requires objective evidence of its efficacy under controlled clinical conditions.
In 1996, a draft report on the clinical practice of acupuncture was reviewed at the WHO Consultation on Acupuncture held in Cervia, Italy. The participants recommended that WHO should revise the report, focusing on data from controlled clinical trials. This publication is the outcome of that process.