In the largest study of the effects of acupuncture for lower back pain in the US (published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, now JAMA, in 2009), it’s demonstrated that acupuncture is a more effective way of treating chronic low back pain than the standard conventional treatments of medication and physical therapy.  Clearly, this finding is noteworthy in and of itself. Its findings are similar to those of the largest study on acupuncture for lower back pain conducted for insurance companies in Germany in 2008. It concluded that acupuncture helped improve lower back pain for at least 6 months, an effectiveness rate “almost twice that of conventional therapy.” [1]

If acupuncture has been shown to work staggeringly better than the current standard plan of care, why hasn’t it become THE treatment of choice, rather than seen as a “complementary and alternative treatment?”

The problem is that in both of these studies, patients in a control group who were given sham acupuncture treatments also experienced meaningful improvements, though not as significant as those who received real acupuncture. Critics drew the erroneous conclusion that because the sham treatments yielded positive results, the placebo effect must be the most important factor. It’s understandable that acupuncturists may shy away from bringing up research that may attribute part of our medicine’s success rate to the placebo effect: people are still largely naïve about the power of Chinese medicine, and we don’t want our very legit medicine to be perceived as something one needs to believe in. But the placebo effect is a factor in all forms of medicine whether it’s pills or receiving an acupuncture treatment. And the fact that acupuncture works on dogs and cats (who presumably don’t “believe in” acupuncture) demonstrates that there is clearly something beyond the placebo effect at work.

Returning to the lower back pain studies: let’s not overlook the fact that people got better. And that the patients who received real acupuncture got better results than they would have through conventional means. 60-80% of the public will experience lower back pain in the course of their lives (http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/condition/low-back-pain). People should know that acupuncture is an outstanding treatment strategy, outperforming the standard of care for lower back pain. Share this, tweet it, post it on your blog, shout it from the rooftops and help those you care about make an informed choice.

 

[1] Haake M, MüLler H, Schade-Brittinger C, et al. German Acupuncture Trials (Gerac) For Chronic Low Back Pain: Randomized, Multicenter, Blinded, Parallel-Group Trial With 3 Groups. Arch Intern Med. 2007;167(17):1892-1898. doi:10.1001/Archinte.167.17.1892.

 

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