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Real and fake acupuncture work for back pain

By Nigel Praities

Real and simulated acupuncture are both more effective than usual care for treating back pain, say US researchers.

The researchers showed there was little difference between conventional Chinese methods of using acupuncture and so-called sham acupuncture using a toothpick.

The study provides fresh support for the strong placebo effect of acupuncture, but suggests the treatment may not have additional benefit beyond that.

Some 640 patients with chronic back pain were randomised to conventional acupuncture, shallow needling not at acupuncture points, simulated acupuncture using a tooth pick at acupuncture sites or usual care.

The seven-week study found 60% of patients receiving any form of acupuncture reported clinically meaningful improvements in their level of functioning, compared 39% of those receiving usual care.

Over the study period, symptoms improved by 1.6 to 1.9 points in the acupuncture groups, compared with 0.7 points in the usual care group.

The authors concluded this showed the benefits of acupuncture were clinically significant, but not related to using pressure points.

Study leader Dr Daniel Cherkin, senior investigator at the Center for Health Studies in Seattle, said: ‘Chinese meridian system is no more effective for chronic back pain than various purported forms of sham acupuncture. However, both real and sham acupuncture appear superior to usual care.

‘For clinicians and patients seeking a relatively safe and effective treatment for a condition for which conventional treatments are often ineffective, various methods of acupuncture point stimulation appear to be reasonable options.'

The paper appears in the latest edition of the Archives of Internal Medicine. It follows a systematic review of 13 studies in the BMJ finding ‘sham' acupuncture was just as good at relieving pain as traditional methods and only had a small pain-relieving effect.

Acupuncture: Real techniques and sham acupuncure work on back pain

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