Chronic back pain is one of the most common health problems that Canadian doctors encounter. And since Western medicine hasn’t developed highly effective treatments for it, those suffering from back pain often seek relief from complementary and alternative medicines like acupuncture.
Acupuncture has been used for thousands of years in China, and is now one of the most popular complementary and alternative medicines in the Western world. According to traditional Chinese medicine theory, it works by regulating the flow of qi (vital energy) through the body. In the view of Western medicine, it treats pain by deactivating the brain’s pain-perceiving limbic system.
Yet how reliable and effective is acupuncture in reality? This has been a topic of much debate in recent years. Many studies have been conducted on the applications of acupuncture, which range from treating headaches to menstrual cramps. In the past, these studies have been largely inconclusive. On a whole, comparisons between studies have been difficult, making it impossible to draw general conclusions from the research. This is because the studies have used different acupuncture techniques, different measures, and different controls.
So in May 2009, when a large and rigorous study on acupuncture released its results, it was a major step forward in acupuncture research. Published in Archives of Internal Medicine, the study found that acupuncture is as effective as other back pain treatments, with patients still showing marked improvement after 8 weeks. The benefits lasted one year.
Interestingly enough, the study also found that it was unnecessary to either tailor the acupuncture sites to the patient or to actually insert the needle into the skin. That is, the patients who experienced simulated acupuncture, where needles were not physically inserted, benefited as much as those who received true acupuncture treatment. The participants were split into four groups – acupuncture with personalized insertion points, general back pain acupuncture, simulated acupuncture, and default treatment (no acupuncture). The first three received default treatment along with acupuncture, and all three showed similar amounts of improvement over the last group.
Overall, it is clear that acupuncture is an effective treatment of chronic lower back pain. How exactly it works and why a placebo is so effective, however, are topics that remain to be explored.