In traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture has been accepted as a safe and effective form of treatment for centuries. The Western medical profession has always been sceptical about the medicinal effectiveness of sticking needles into people. But a recent clinical trial reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine this May, has produced new evidence that may prompt a more general re-evaluation of the technique for the management of pain. In Seatle, the Group Health Center for Health Studies recruited some 640 people suffering from back pain. It is often difficult to make a precise diagnosis of the causes of pain in the back. People report a range of non-specific symptoms.
Many doctors are therefore trying a wide range of different therapies to see which produce the best results in relieving pain symptoms. Randomly dividing the recruits into four groups of 160, the volunteers were given genuine acupuncture, simulated acupuncture by pricking the skin with toothpicks in the correct locations, were randomly pricked with real needles, and were given conventional physical therapy. This produces one genuine form of acupuncture, two placebo versions and conventional treatment.
The treatment in all four cases administered ten sessions over a seven week period. There were follow-up interviews to assess each patient’s quality of life at 2, 6 and 12 months after the end of the treatment. About 60% of those who received one of the three versions of acupuncture reported significant improvement in mobility at all three interview. Only 40-50% of those who received a conventional Western form of treatment reported improvement. It seems that prodding someone with a toothpick is just as effective as actually inserting needles. This tends to confirm earlier research findings that social contact with the individuals administering the treatment is just as important as the treatment being administered. If the patient/therapist relationship is good, people derive benefit from the sessions.
This leaves the latest research findings uncertain. There was no clear evidence showing that “real” acupuncture is better than “fake” acupuncture. The way the mind and the body interact to create, send and understand pain messages is complicated. Medical science is making progress but, when it comes to back pain, it seems that both conventional and unconventional therapies can be equally effective because of the placebo effect. In the case of drugs, however, clinical trials have produced very clear evidence that they do work to reduce pain.
For moderate to severe pain, the use of tramadol has consistently been shown safe and effective. This has been confirmed by millions of patients around the world. But note the numbers from this latest study: 60% of those who received any version of acupuncture reported a good quality of life after 12 months. No matter how it works, it does reduce the pain and improve the mobility. So alongside the drive to buy tramadol, talk with your doctor about acupuncture or any of the other forms of therapy. While tramadol does work, it is not good to depend on it. Finding an alternative but effective form of treatment is the best long-term solution.