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Acupuncture May Ease Chronic Back Pain

Study Shows Acupuncture Trumps Standard Care for Back Pain Relief
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Acupuncture vs. 'Usual Care' continued...

That translated to those in the acupuncture group being able to do more daily activities, such as going to social functions or performing household tasks, Cherkin tells WebMD.

After a year, those in the acupuncture groups were also more likely than the usual-care group to continue to have improvement in dysfunction, with up to 65% of the acupuncture-treated patients but just 50% of the usual-care patients still reporting improvements. But the improvement waned over time.

The finding that the simulated acupuncture was as good as needle acupuncture is puzzling, Cherkin admits. "What we can say is, it is not essential to achieve a benefit to insert the needle through the skin," he says.

Why this is so is not known, he says. "One possibility is there is a physiological chain of events that occurs when you insert a needle or just stimulate the skin superficially. They may or may not be the same."

Another possibility, he says, is "believing you are getting a treatment that will help your back pain" helps it.

And, he adds, not all participants benefited from the acupuncture, whatever the form. Still, he says, "acupuncture is a reasonable option" for those with low back pain. Americans spend at least $37 billion a year for medical care for back pain, Cherkin notes in his report.

'Acupuncture Can Help'

"Although this study has shed some light [on back pain treatment], it is also confusing, I think," says Arya Nick Shamie, MD, associate professor of spine surgery at the University of California David Geffen School of Medicine and a spokesman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

"For the most part, acupuncture is very safe," says Shamie, who has recommended it to his patients with chronic back pain. However, he adds, "this paper has confused the issue even further as to how acupuncture works." Even so, he says, "what it does show is acupuncture can help patients."

The good results with the "toothpick" acupuncture may very well be a placebo effect, Shamie says. "Even going and talking to your doctor could have a strong, positive effect on your health," he says. "When people have chronic illness, they want to feel that someone cares for them, and that basically unloads the mind of the burden of disease."

His caveat: "Chronic back pain should be evaluated by your physician or a specialist," he says, to rule out any serious underlying medical problems.

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