Patients with low back pain who had acupuncture improved more than those who got typical medical care, a new study found. But surprisingly, imitation acupuncture brought as much improvement as the real thing. The finding raises questions about how acupuncture relieves pain.
Some people with back pain who aren’t happy with standard medical care decide to try acupuncture. In fact, back pain is the main reason people visit licensed acupuncturists.
Acupuncture originated in traditional Chinese medicine. It involves inserting thin metal needles though the skin to stimulate specific points on the body. In the U.S., acupuncture is considered part of complementary and alternative medicine.
To see how acupuncture compares to standard therapies, researchers enrolled 638 adults in an NIH-funded clinical study. All had long-term low back pain but had never had acupuncture.
The patients were divided into 4 groups. Two groups had different types of acupuncture. People in the third group didn’t realize it, but they received an imitation of acupuncture, which used toothpicks to stimulate acupuncture points but didn’t break the skin. In the 3 acupuncture groups, each patient received 10 treatments. The fourth group had standard medical care for low back pain.
After 8 weeks, all 3 acupuncture groups showed significantly more improvement than the standard-care group. The benefits continued for a year, although they lessened over time. Surprisingly, there was no significant difference between the 3 groups receiving acupuncture, whether real or imitation.
“This adds to the growing body of evidence that there is something meaningful taking place during acupuncture treatments outside of actual needling,” says Dr. Josephine P. Briggs, director of NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. “Future research is needed to delve deeper into what is evoking these responses.”