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Does Acupuncture Help Your Back?

Lots of people swear by acupuncture for all sorts of things, including relieving back aches. Well, there's an interesting new study out this week that raises some provocative questions about how well acupuncture really works.

Daniel Cherkin of the Group Health Center for Health Studies in Seattle and his colleagues compared four different types of treatment in a randomized clinical trial involving 638 adults with chronic low back pain in Seattle and Oakland, Calif.

The study subjects received one of four treatments: standard medical treatment (including drugs and physical therapy), standard acupuncture treatments, a course of acupuncture tailored to the individual patient by an acupuncturist or simulated acupuncture in which practitioners used a toothpick inside of an acupuncture needle guide tube to mimic the real thing. The participants were then quizzed over the phone after two months, six months and then a year about how their backs were doing.

Now here's the interesting part. After eight weeks about 40 percent of those who received standard medical care reported feeling better and about 60 percent of those getting acupuncture reported improvement. But it didn't matter what kind of acupuncture. Even those who got the phony version said they felt better. It was about the same after a year.

So what's going on? The researchers, who report their findings in this week's issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, are withholding judgment. They say it could be that there's something about even the phony version that stimulates some sort of physiological response that is beneficial. Or it could just be that interacting with an acupuncturist makes people feel better. Or maybe it's just that people think it works and so they feel better -- in other words, the placebo effect.

What do you think? Are you a acupuncture believer? Or are you a skeptic?

By Rob Stein  |  May 14, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Alternative and Complementary Medicine  
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I think the scientists should go with what works. Apparently acupuncture - of one form or another - works better than drugs and physical therapy. Unfortunately, it is also probably cheaper and not always done by members of the doctors' union the AMA, so it will not become the more "popular" treatment because it won't be a popular with doctors. Guess who loses out in this little play? There are probably lots of other "standard" medical treatments that are less cost effective as less "medical" ones. Guess who loses out in these situations? Same answer.

Posted by: jimsuejohnson | May 14, 2009 9:49 AM | Report abuse

I'm an acupuncture skeptic, for a multitude of reasons. A good critique of the techique is by Dr. Stephen Barrett at

-Steve Parker, M.D.

Posted by: SteveParkerMD | May 14, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Growing up in D.O. (doctor of osteopathic medicine) county, I'm fairly comfortable with alternative therapies and medicines. But I've also heard some great stories about animals and their response to acupuncture. Maybe we should look to the non-human animal world in order to aid our efforts at analyizing the effectiveness of certain medical treatments with a greatly reduced probability of the placebo effect skewing results.

Posted by: CAN50 | May 14, 2009 12:50 PM | Report abuse

I don't think the results of the study are "provocative" at all. No well-controlled, scientifically credible study has ever shown that acupuncture actually works any better than a placebo for pain relief.

What's even worse is that there are people out there--such as a member of the Montgomery County Council--who promote the use of acupuncture, and spend taxpayers' money in the process, for treatment of conditions like drug addiction, when there is no evidence that it works for that, either.

Posted by: oldguy2 | May 14, 2009 1:16 PM | Report abuse

I remember when a crippled kid dropped his crutches and walked on stage when Oral Roberts "healed" him through the power of Jesus.

The kid's doctors had to operate all over again to replace the torn out rods in his knees.

Placebos appear to work on many people, but only really works when the original problem is mostly attitude.

Posted by: lufrank1 | May 14, 2009 1:58 PM | Report abuse

I must admit I was a sceptic. I hurt my back and my wife found a very old Chinese man through her religion who offered to perform acupuncture. I was hurting and would have tried anything.

I literally was carried from the car into his clinic in downtown Los Angeles. he spoke with me for about half an hour asking questions. Then he used his hands and slowly felt my ears and my feet.

He then put the needles in place for about 30 minutes. I still remember exactly where he put them so I can massage myself in the same places when my back feels stressed.

I honestly walked out on my own. It was not a miracle and it still hurt, but within three days I felt fine.

Who knows if it was the acupuncture or my belief it worked? All I know is I really did walk out of his office.

Posted by: chris65 | May 14, 2009 3:44 PM | Report abuse

If this wasn't a Chinese derived medical technic, for sure, there wouldn't even be a study, much less a racially motivated negative article, just like every other WaPo Chinese attack article....right???

Posted by: rush_n_crush | May 14, 2009 7:09 PM | Report abuse

I was a total nonbeliever in Accupuncture until I was unable to work or socialize for almost 3 months due to a terrible pinched nerve in my back which disabilitated me. After one treatment which I was talked into by a friend...i not only slept thru the entire night for the first time in 3 months, but was back at work in two days and off all medication. I highly recommend it to anyone and have to many of my friends and co workers. It has worked 70% of the time with people I recommend to try it.

Posted by: Serenity3 | May 14, 2009 8:14 PM | Report abuse

I have used acupuncture to treat different ailments for over 10 years. It has helped my allergies, my sleeping, digestive system.

I am a writer (college professor), and when I am in an intense period of writing, I go regularly to my acupuncturist (who trained in China).

Friends and relatives have gone to this same acupuncturist and have had successful treatment for migraines, carpal tunnel syndrome, TMJ, back problems etc.

It is the best medicine I have ever found.

Posted by: bornintheUSA2008 | May 14, 2009 9:23 PM | Report abuse

I am not especially surprised by the result result reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine. I am largely a skeptic of acupuncture, but I am a scientist and recognize that many studies have shown that some patients will be helped by acupuncture. I guess what I personally believe is that many people will spontaneously improve, and if acupuncture is part of a "push" that gets someone to wellness than I am all for it. No one should have to live in constant pain.

For my own part, I found that neither chiropractic care, nor acupuncture was effective in helping me overcome pelvic and lower back pain that was getting progressively worse. I tried both therapies, really hoping for some improvement, but I had to accept that, after initially thinking I had felt some improvement, I wasn't any better.

To be fair, though, I also found that "usual care," the use of NSAIDs (over-the-counter or prescription) didn't help me, either. I actually had the same experience that occured with acupuncture - I would feel better for a couple of weeks, but found that a couple months later I was just as disabled as I had been before starting the medication.

Ultimately, though, I visited a rheumatologist who suggested I try a (then) new biologic drug (an anti-TNF alpha injectable) after reviewing my x-ray history and coming to a new diagnosis.

This medication has made all the difference to me. Unlike NSAID's, the effectiveness has been maintained for years. I've had a few insurance-related episodes, where I've been off of the medicine for a while, and over the course of months my symptoms re-appear, but within 24 hours of getting back on my medication I feel much better.

Posted by: gtf13 | May 14, 2009 10:42 PM | Report abuse

Two spinal compression fractures left me with sciatic pain down my left leg and drop foot. I suffered for six weeks with only NSAIDs suggested by my doctor.

I went to a highly recommended licensed acupunturist and the sciatic pain and drop foot went away right after the acupuncture.
My MD's response was it must have been spontaneous nerve improvement.

Posted by: milwaukee1 | May 15, 2009 12:27 AM | Report abuse

I must admit, I was a skeptic about acupuncture as well. In 2007, I was hit by a drunk driver in my knees and it caused a lot of damage to them. I figured, why not try acupuncture before surgery. It can't hurt! Well, I mentioned to the acupuncturist that I had had carpel tunnel syndrome in my right hand and she decided to put needles in both my wrists and hands as well as my knees. There was no change in the condition of my knees, but later that day I developed all sorts of strange tingling in my left hand. Now my pinkie and half my index finger routinely go numb. My hand doctor thinks she nicked one of the nerves in my left hand. It may never heal. Think about it, the acupuncturist is taking a sharp needle and driving it blindly into an area with thread-thin nerves. Acupuncture is not risk-free. I’m still a skeptic.

Posted by: m5691 | May 15, 2009 1:37 AM | Report abuse

After my 3 epidural injections I was totally paralized. My 2 doctors were urging me to have an open back operation, but I refused because I was in such tremendous state of pain that I could not think correctly. I decided to allow the body to repair itself, althought the MRI was clearly indicating some medical intevention, and instead I took the acupuncture treatment, and now after 6 months, I have experienced not total cure, but a high level of pain reduction. I am not longer walking with the help of the walker. The moral of my story is that giving the proper time, the body will provide the proper treatment and cure, to some extent.

Posted by: almontalvo-cpa | May 15, 2009 9:39 AM | Report abuse

I think accupuncture works for many things. I have had accupuncture and consider it to be a technique to correct something that is out of adjustment. The farther you are out of adjustment, the lower the chance accupuncture will cure the problem. It appears to me that the success rates of accupuncture are similar to success rates of western medicine for many things. I wouldn't recommend accupuncture to cure cancer. But for back pain, there is a lot of anectodal evidence that it works.

I wonder if the statistical procedures used by the western medicine industry are being used correctly, because the studies consistently "pass" drugs that kill people and consistently "fail" vitamins, accupuncture, medicinal herbs, and other therapies that are considered to be effective by the people who try them. If the alternative therapies didn't work, the marketplace would vote them down, wouldn't it?

Posted by: Torishimariyaku | May 15, 2009 9:45 AM | Report abuse

I have used it and agree with another poster. Sometimes it works very well and othertimes, not so well. The first time I tried it was with a twisted ankle and it helped alot, I also tried it with back pain and while it helped a little, it didn't solve all problems.

So can it help? Yes but it is not a cure-all so don't expect it to cure everything.

Posted by: rchayes | May 15, 2009 9:53 AM | Report abuse

The placebo "toothpicks" acted as acupressure, not acupuncture, a milder yet still viable form of the practice. I have seen great results from acupuncture as it stopped seizures in my cat and cured, yes cured, me of asthma and stopped all my many, many years of allergies, too, in three treatments. It is common to be a non beliver until one actually uses this healing technique. There are good practioners and bad ones, just like any profession. Non results usually involve the latter in my experience.

Posted by: heritagegallery1 | May 15, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

Again, this is from personal experience.

I used to be a chronic back pain sufferer for my youth (age 14) to age 38. After multiple episodes, I was informed of a book by Dr. John Sarno - Healing Back Pain. I now have been back pain free for over 18 years.

My theory on why the people who were given the toothprick treatment had similar results as acupuncture is the principle of the above book - mind over back pain - my lifestlye has not changed before and after my back pain episodes but the way I handle and address stress has.

During my back pain days, I visited doctors, chiropractors, acupunturists and massage therapists. While the doctors provided the drugs and rest therapy, the relief was always temporary and used up many sick days. Use of the alternative therapy provided immediate relief and a quicker return to normalcy versus the drug / rest method.

For the most part, medical doctors do not support alternative therapies and at times ridicule the patient for trying such methods. The exception was Dr. John Sarno, who after treating hundreds of back pain patients has found a quicker way of resolving back pain issues.

My relief for when I start feeling lower back pain is to determine the cause of my stress and find ways to resolve the issues and relieve the stress. Additional relief, if needed is obtained from massage therapy.

The bottom line for me is that acupunture in combination with massage therapy provides immediate relief with no drugs and loss of work time.

Posted by: rajinde | May 15, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse

I had debilitating lower back pain several years ago that was so horrible that I could not sit for more than 10 minutes at a time. I tried all kinds of drugs, nerve stimulators, and many other conventional treatments to no avail. Finally, in desperation, my dad who is a physician, suggested that I get accupuncture. I was already far better after one session, and pain free after about a month. It was truly remarkable and I had zero expectation that it would work at all.

Posted by: myeager | May 15, 2009 9:55 PM | Report abuse

The real question here is why accupuncture was more successful than regular medical techniques, not why toothpicks worked. We in the western world have been brainwashed to believe that if some alleged scientific testing is done, everything is alright. The bottom line is that the body is self-healing and no doctor is capable of healing, only of assisting the body to heal itself. Traditional chinese medicine, with pressure point stimulation, qigong practice, and meditation often assists the body more that the drug silly western practitioners.

Posted by: rltlaw | May 16, 2009 2:31 PM | Report abuse

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