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Acupuncture ‘an option for patients with unexplained symptoms’

By Christian Duffin

Acupuncture may bring pain reduction and boost 'mental energy' for patients who visit their GP frequently with medically unexplained physical symptoms (MUPS), researchers have said.

The researchers drew their conclusions after two studies involving patients referred to acupuncture sessions.

One study examined the effectiveness of adding five-element acupuncture to usual care in 80 frequent attenders with medically unexplained physical symptoms. It resulted in 'improved health status and well being' sustained for 12 months, the researchers said.

The other study involved interviews with each of 20 frequent attender patients with medically unexplained physical symptoms, at the start, and end of up to 12 acupuncture sessions over six months.

Patients described a range of physical changes after acupuncture, including reductions in the frequency and severity of pain. Some patients reported improvements to digestive, gynaecological and neurological symptoms. Dr Charlotte Paterson, a GP and senior research fellow at Peninsula Medical School in Exeter, was a co-researcher in both studies.

She said of the second study: 'Psychologically, many noted a more positive outlook on life and experienced feelings of greater personal control, calmness, and relaxation. These changes sometimes led to improved relationships and increased social activities.'

'Three interviewees reported that their health had worsened but did not ascribe this to acupuncture.'

Patients perceived a range of positive effects from five-element acupuncture and appeared to become more active in consultations and during self care, added Dr Paterson.

The findings may be useful because patient-focused psychological and behavioural interventions have often proved unacceptable in the past to this patient group, she said.

She cautioned, however, that more work needs to be done to determine the cost-effectiveness of acupuncture in primary care.

In an accompanying editorial, Professors Wong Samuel Yeung Shan and Chung Vincent Chi Ho, from the University of Hong Kong, argued that acupuncture is growing in popularity in the West, including the UK, where NICE suggests its use for persistent lower back pain. They added that 'understanding patient's experiences of acupuncture can shed light on potential psychosocial factors that can contribute to [its] effectiveness.'

Brit J Gen Prac June 2011