Low back pain has become a major global health concern with nearly 70% of the industrialized world’s population afflicted. The lack of adequate treatment for this chronic pain has caused severe comfort of life problems among the millions of individuals who combat it day and night. While physical therapy and pain medications are the standard care for most patients, many seek alternative treatments to either augment or entirely supplant the usual care methods. One such treatment is acupuncture, an ancient Chinese practice using thin needles to release pressure points on the body. Acupuncture for pain management has increased lately in popularity because of the lack of options patients face when combating the day to day struggle of a sometimes debilitating pain.
Like most non-Western approaches to medicine, the academic community has relatively little to say about acupuncture’s effectiveness. However, a recent study by the Centre for Health, Activity and Rehabilitation at the University of Otago examines the effectiveness of acupuncture for the treatment of low back pain and reveals that the practice may be useful in relieving pain and increasing functionality when used in addition to physical therapy. The study, a survey of sixteen unique clinical trials, reveals that even in a scientific study, there are no clear cut answers that prove or disprove the effectiveness of acupuncture for low back pain.
Often, these studies do little to separate acupuncture from the stigma that it is unscientific, but this overview reveals that some trials that have treated the practice as medicine and studied its effects in the same manner as more mainstream low back pain treatments. Ultimately, an open-mindedness of the medical community to study alternative treatment will be the key to understanding more about pain treatment, which can only bring positive results to the millions of individuals afflicted by this debilitating pain. Cultural bias or fear of the unknown should not deter scientific progress, a role which the public plays just as strong of a role to be willing to explore new treatments. However, the public cannot put its trust in new methods of treatment unless their physicians can speak to the benefits and shortcomings of each method knowledgably.
There are several conclusions we can make about acupuncture based on these trials. Though no study supports a recommendation of only acupuncture for low back pain, the use of acupuncture as an addition to a more standard pain management plan is either tolerated as “not harmful” or, in some cases, is encouraged due to positive results. There were many instances in which patients using true acupuncture versus those who were administered a kind of placebo (i.e. no penetration of the needles, incorrect points on the body) experienced very positive results while the placebo groups reported nothing. Though there were some cases that contradicted this, a general statement about the use of acupuncture for low back pain is that it can be helpful if used in addition to physical therapy but should not fully replace a more standard pain management program.
Ultimately acupuncture is a personal choice for individuals open to exploring alternative possibilities to treating pain. According to the most modern science on the practice, patients may feel relief in the short term after acupuncture treatment- many have reported comfort and less pain. However, the disappointment that accompanies another failed pain treatment method may be too frustrating. Both instances have occurred as evidenced in these trials. It seems that currently, pain relief is far too personal for the scientific process to make a definitive statement on this particular method, which may a comfort more personal than a study can explain. Ultimately, what the recent study reveals is that there has not been enough clinical examination of acupuncture for low back pain. While the medical community’s support remains with the standard method of low back pain treatments, management of pain medication and physical therapy, there is an ever-growing community of individuals exploring new methods of treating their pain. In the case of acupuncture the “new” treatment is an ancient practice with a history rooted deeply in Chinese culture. Perhaps a little more relief can be found through acupuncture, time will tell if it should be a part of the long-term plan.