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With or Without Needles, Acupuncture Eases Back Pain

Posted: May 19, 2009

Indicating a need to learn more about alternative therapies, a new study shows that acupuncture performed both with and without needles helps ease back pain.

Acupuncture brought more relief to people with back pain than standard treatments, whether it was done with a toothpick or a real needle, U.S. researchers said recently in a study that raises new questions about how acupuncture works. For many patients, that benefit lasted for a year, the team reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

"Our study shows that you don't need to stick needles into people to get the same effect," said Dr. Daniel Cherkin of Group Health Center for Health Studies in Seattle, who led the study. "Historically, some types of acupuncture have used non-penetrating needles. Such treatments may involve physiological effects that make a clinical difference," Karen Sherman of Group Health, who also worked on the study, said in a statement.

The team, wanted to study the effects of different types of acupuncture in a large, carefully controlled study of 638 patients with chronic low back pain. They divided patients into several groups. One got seven weeks of standardized acupuncture treatment known to be effective in back pain. Another group got an individually prescribed acupuncture treatment. A third group was treated using a toothpick in a needle guide tube that did not pierce the skin as regular acupuncture does, but targeting the correct acupuncture "points". A fourth group just got standard medical treatment, which included medication and physical therapy.

After eight weeks, 60% of the patients who got any type of acupuncture reported significant improvement in their ability to function compared with those who got standard medical care alone. But there was no significant difference in the pain relief people got from the acupuncture using needles or from toothpicks.