Is Auricular Acupuncture Effective in Reducing Anxiety in Patients Attending for Magnetic Resonance Imaging? A Pilot Study

By Patrica Blee



Many people attend hospitals for MRI scans every day as part of their diagnosis and treatment plan. A significant number of these patients suffer great anxiety before and during this scan (Tischler, 2008). This is distressing for the patient and disruptive to the running of the MRI department.


A 2-arm pilot study was carried out using a Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) methodology in an NHS setting (Royal Victoria Hospital, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne) on a group of outpatients attending for MRI scan. Patients were randomly assigned to one of two groups; usual care (N=9) or auricular acupuncture in addition to usual care (N=10). Patients in the acupuncture group had three sterile single use needles placed in points which have been shown to induce relaxation and produce a sedative effect in a clinical setting in previous studies (Wang et al 2001, Karst et al 2007). The needles were left in place for 20 minutes and removed just before the scan. Anxiety levels were measured through the use of a State Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) to provide a quantitative measure of patient anxiety level. A baseline state and trait anxiety questionnaire was completed on arrival to the department. Further state-only questionnaires were completed immediately before scan and straight after scan.


Anxiety levels experienced by patients in both groups were statistically analysed and compared. It was found that patients in the acupuncture group had a significantly reduced anxiety level before scan (P=0.002) compared with the usual care group. Linear regression analysis demonstrated no specific effect from age and gender across the groups. However, of 4 phobic patients in the acupuncture group, only 2 managed to complete their scan and with great difficulty.


Whilst acupuncture has been shown to significantly reduce patient anxiety before MRI scanning, it did not alter the experience of the phobic patient. However, it could be used to help the majority of anxious patients who do not have a phobia.