There’s a study published in this week’s “Archives of Internal Medicine” that performed a double-blinded randomized controlled trial comparing traditional Chinese acupuncture to fake acupuncture to a drug/exercise/physical therapy combo for people suffering from chronic lower back pain. I don’t have access yet to the entire article (so I’m not sure about the specifics), but you can read the abstract here, or read the CNN writeup here. The findings are a bit surprising – not only did real acupuncture out-perform the drug and physical therapy combo, but the “sham” acupuncture (where the needles were inserted superficially at nonacupuncture points) performed almost as well as the real thing:
At 6 months, response rate was 47.6% in the verum acupuncture group, 44.2% in the sham acupuncture group, and 27.4% in the conventional therapy group. Differences among groups were as follows: verum vs sham, 3.4% (95% confidence interval, –3.7% to 10.3%; P = .39); verum vs conventional therapy, 20.2% (95% confidence interval, 13.4% to 26.7%; P < .001); and sham vs conventional therapy, 16.8% (95% confidence interval, 10.1% to 23.4%; P < .001.
In English, 47.6% of people receiving Chinese acupuncture saw improvement in their pain 6 months later, compared with 44.2% in the fake group, and only 27.4% in the modern medicine group. And the comparison of Chinese to modern, and fake to modern are statistically significant.
I wonder if this will change the minds of any doctors who scoff at alternative medicine? Probably not – the research doesn’t say why the Chinese and fake acupuncture worked better. It could be the placebo effect, it could be that needles affect some pain pathway, or it could be something completely different. But, even if it is some sort of placebo effect that is being observed, does it really matter? Not if you are a sufferer of chronic back pain. I had a classmate in high school who was in a car accident and suffered from excruciating back pain as a result. She tried all sorts of therapy, pain pills, and injections, and none of it worked. The only relief she found (and thus the only thing that allowed her to function as a normal member of society) was acupuncture. So, while I’m glad there are studies out there to investigate the claims of alternative medicine, ultimately (assuming the therapy is not dangerous) it doesn’t matter whether they *actually* work in a biochemical/scientific sense – if a person finds relief from their daily pain, real or not, that is most important.