Does Acupuncture Really Give Back Pain Relief?

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acupuncture for back painBack pain sufferers unable to find back pain relief from physical therapy or back pain medications may look to alternative therapies for a solution, particularly acupuncture. According to an article that appeared in the American Council on Science and Health, if you are considering acupuncture, you may want to consider the results of a new meta-analysis showing that the procedure may pose more risks than benefits.

Researchers from the Universities of Exeter & Plymouth (Exeter, UK) and the Korea Institute of Oriental Medicine (Daejeon, South Korea) evaluated 56 acupuncture review papers with clear “Methods” sections defining how studies were chosen for review of acupuncture-associated pain relief and side effects. Reporting in the April 2011 issue of Pain, they found that the pain relief associated with acupuncture amounted to no more than a placebo effect, but with a significantly increased rate of adverse side effects, such as infection or trauma.

The abstract summarised: Acupuncture is commonly used for pain control, but doubts about its effectiveness and safety remain. This review was aimed at critically evaluating systematic reviews of acupuncture as a treatment of pain and at summarizing reports of serious adverse effects published since 2000. Literature searches were carried out in 11 databases without language restrictions.

Systematic reviews were considered for the evaluation of effectiveness and case series or case reports for summarizing adverse events. Data were extracted according to predefined criteria. Fifty-seven systematic reviews met the inclusion criteria. Four were of excellent methodological quality. Numerous contradictions and caveats emerged. Unanimously positive conclusions from more than one high-quality systematic review existed only for neck pain. Ninety-five cases of severe adverse effects including 5 fatalities were included. Pneumothorax and infections were the most frequently reported adverse effects.

In conclusion, numerous systematic reviews have generated little truly convincing evidence that acupuncture is effective in reducing pain. Serious adverse effects continue to be reported.

Importantly, when a treatment is truly effective, studies tend to produce more convincing results as time passes and the weight of evidence accumulates. When a treatment is extensively studied for decades and the evidence continues to be inconsistent, it becomes more and more likely that the treatment is not truly effective. This appears to be the case for acupuncture.

ACSH’s Dr. Gilbert Ross couldn’t agree more. “This seems like a fairly clear report: meta-analysis of numerous studies shows that the pain benefit from acupuncture is no greater than a placebo effect, while contributing significant numbers of unjustifiable side-effects and complications. So why do it?”

But these findings will most likely do nothing to convince those who embrace acupuncture as a religion, says ACSH’s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan. ACSH’s Dr. Josh Bloom agrees, doubting he can convince those who swear by acupuncture. “My ‘alternative medicine’ friends will still swear that ‘with the first needle prick my back pain was gone!’ What are you going to do?”

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