Back pain: This alternative therapy may be ‘more’ effective than conventional therapy

Back pain afflicts one in three Britons every year. It’s usually the lower back that’s affected. Most cases are caused by bad posture or picking something up awkwardly. Conventional therapies typically involve physiotherapy and exercise programmes to strengthen the muscles in the back. It may come as a surprise that acupuncture may be more effective than conventional methods for treating low back pain, according to a study published in Archives of Internal Medicine.

Michael Haake, Ph.D., M.D., of the University of Regensburg, Bad Abbach, Germany, and colleagues conducted a randomised clinical trial involving 1,162 patients (average age 50) who had experienced chronic low back pain for an average of eight years.

Patients underwent ten 30-minute sessions (approximately two sessions per week) of verum acupuncture (387 patients), sham acupuncture (387 patients) or conventional therapy (388 patients).

Verum acupunture consisted of needling fixed points and additional points to a depth of 5 millimetres to 40 millimetres based on traditional Chinese medicine, while sham acupuncture consisted of inserting needles superficially (1 millimetre to 3 millimetres) into the lower back avoiding all known verum points or meridians.

Conventional therapy consisted of a combination of medication, physical therapy and exercise.

Five additional sessions were offered to those who had a partial response to treatment (10 per cent to 50 per cent pain reduction).

The superiority of both forms of acupuncture suggests a common underlying mechanism

Study authors

“A total of 13,475 treatment sessions were conducted (verum acupuncture, 4,821; sham acupuncture, 4,590; conventional therapy, 4,064),” the authors wrote.

Patients receiving the additional five sessions were 232 (59.9 percent) in the verum group, 209 (54.3 percent) in the sham group and 192 (52.5 percent) in the conventional group.

Response rate was defined as a 33 per cent improvement in pain or a 12 per cent improvement in functional ability.

“At six months, response rate was 47.6 percent in the verum acupuncture group, 44.2 percent in the sham acupuncture group and 27.4 percent in the conventional therapy group,” the authors noted.

Commenting on their findings, the authors said: “The superiority of both forms of acupuncture suggests a common underlying mechanism that may act on pain generation, transmission of pain signals or processing of pain signals by the central nervous system and that is stronger than the action mechanism of conventional therapy.”

They added: ”Acupuncture gives physicians a promising and effective treatment option for chronic low back pain, with few adverse effects or contraindications. The improvements in all primary and secondary outcome measures were significant and lasted long after completion of treatment.”

Another study published in Archives of Internal Medicine echoed these findings.

Researchers tested several different types of acupuncture to treat chronic lower back pain and found all performed better than Western remedies, including drugs.

After eight weeks 60 per cent of patients receiving acupuncture, including with toothpicks, reported feeling better.

Clinical improvements were reported by just 39 per cent of those who had conventional treatments.

The gap remained even after a year, the study found.

Karen Sherman, co-author of the report said: “We don’t know why people got pain relief from the simulated acupuncture.

“Such treatments may produce physiological effects. Or it might all be the mind-body connection.”

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