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Acupuncture Study Shows Benefit for Chronic Back Pain

Chronic lower back pain is very common, and it's very difficult to treat effectively. Doctors often suggest drugs or exercise or physical therapy, but the treatments don't always work. So some patients choose alternatives, such as acupuncture. A new study suggests that can be a pretty smart choice.

Given the popularity of alternative treatments for back pain, a research team from the Center for Health Studies in Seattle and other institutions decided to compare the results of conventional treatment with the results of acupuncture therapy.

More than 600 people took part, and the researchers divided them into four groups.

Two of the groups got different kinds of acupuncture. A third group got simulated acupuncture with toothpicks. Their results were compared with a control group that received what the researchers called "usual care" - drugs, physical therapy and so on.

The researchers found that acupuncture was more effective than the usual medical care. For example, before starting treatments, participants' back pain prevented them from doing an average of 11 activities.

"Those that received 'usual care' went down to nine activities that they couldn't do, and those that received acupuncture or simulated acupuncture reported six [activities that they couldn't do]," said Dan Cherkin, lead author of the study. "This is after the seven weeks of acupuncture treatment. And some of these effects actually persisted for one year."

Cherkin said there was no significant difference based on the kind of acupuncture - or even simulated acupuncture.

"There was no apparent advantage of individualizing the treatment to the patient, and there was also no benefit apparently of actually inserting the needle compared to just stimulating points that were believed to be effective superficially."

Cherkin says his study suggests that if your back hurts, and the usual treatment isn't helping, you might consider acupuncture.

"Well, I think for the patient, the take-home message is that acupuncture has the potential to offer relief of pain that other treatments that they may have tried did not provide them. All the people in our study had never had acupuncture before, and roughly one out of five benefitted in the short run."

And for doctors, Cherkin said the message is that acupuncture is a reasonable option for patients who aren't getting relief from other treatments or who have side effects from drugs given to counter pain or inflammation.

Dan Cherkin's study came out this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine, which is published by the American Medical Association. It was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.