Feb. 16, 2006 -- A hands-on approach to healing used in China for thousands of years was found to be more effective in reducing low back pain than standard physical therapy in a new study from Taiwan.
Like its better-known counterpart acupuncture, acupressure involves targeting specific points throughout the body to relieve pain. But instead of using needles, as is done in acupuncture, thumbs and fingertips are used to deliver pressure to those points.
In the study, 129 Taiwanese patients with chronic low back pain were treated with either physical therapy or acupressure over a one-month period.
All the patients completed a standardized questionnaire designed to assess their level of pain and disability prior to treatment, and they were questioned again six months after treatment ended.
At follow-up the acupressure patients were found to have less pain and disability than the physical therapy patients. Six months later, only one of the 64 patients treated with acupressure still had a significant degree of disability due to back pain, compared with eight of 65 patients treated with physical therapy.
The study was published today in the online edition of the BMJ.
Acupressure and acupuncture are increasingly used to treat chronic pain and a host of other ailments. Western-style research shows that the ancient Chinese therapies work for many patients, but several studies have raised questions about why.
More than one has found traditional acupuncture to be no more effective than "sham" acupuncture, in which needles were placed in areas of the body not recognized as active acupuncture points.
Pain treatment expert John Loeser, MD, of the University of Washington, says the findings suggest that psychological factors play a role in the effectiveness of alternative treatments like acupuncture and acupressure.
"People come to pain treatment with strong belief systems, as well as cultural and personal biases that strongly influence their responses," he says.
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Loeser says he would neither encourage nor discourage patients from trying an alternative therapy that may work for them. But he adds that patients should always ask providers of these treatments how long it should take to see results.
He says in 90% of cases low back pain goes away on its own within two months, regardless of treatment.
A successful treatment is one that minimizes pain enough to allow the patient to resume normal activities as soon as possible, Loeser says.
"When I'm asked about alternative treatments, I say that there isn't a lot of scientific evidence to explain why they work," he says. "But they do work for some patients and the risk of them doing harm is pretty small."