An article in the July 29 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine reviewed evidence for the use of acupuncture for chronic low back pain.
"Acupuncture is a therapeutic intervention characterized by the insertion of fine, solid metallic needles into or through the skin at specific sites," write Brian M. Berman, MD, from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. "The technique is believed to have originated in China, where it has remained a fundamental component of a system of [medicine that] espouses an ancient physiological system (not based on Western scientific empiricism) in which health is seen as the result of harmony among bodily functions and between body and nature. Internal disharmony is believed to cause blockage of the body's vital energy, known as qi, which flows along 12 primary and 8 secondary meridians."
Tenderness on palpation is thought to be evidence of blockage of qi, and inserting acupuncture needles at specific points along the meridians is believed to restore the proper flow of qi. The analgesic effects of acupuncture appear to be based on neural innervation, because they are completely blocked by local anesthesia at needle-insertion sites. Furthermore, acupuncture stimulates the release of endogenous opioids in brainstem, subcortical, and limbic structures, as well as producing mechanical stimulation of connective tissue and other effects on local tissues. Despite these effects, the mechanisms underlying chronic pain relief by acupuncture are not completely understood.
Acupuncture is seldom regarded as the first choice of treatment, in part because randomized controlled clinical trials and large meta-analyses have not proven it to be more effective than sham acupuncture in relieving low back pain. However, it may be useful as part of a multidisciplinary approach to the management of chronic low back pain, along with physical therapy, pain medication, and/or exercise.
"Acupuncture is a regulated discipline, and patients should be referred only to practitioners who are licensed by the state in which they practice," the review authors write. "A diploma from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine is a requirement for licensure in most states. Physicians may practice acupuncture in the United States after completing one of several medical acupuncture programs."
Contraindications to acupuncture include coagulation and bleeding disorders, use of anticoagulants, severe psychiatric disease, and local skin infections or trauma. Electroacupuncture should not be used at the site of pacemakers or other implanted electrical devices. Pregnant women may undergo acupuncture, but not at specific acupuncture points known to be especially sensitive to needle insertion or at acupuncture points in the abdominal regions.
One treatment is considered to be insufficient, and recent trials of acupuncture for low back pain used at least 12 acupuncture sessions, often starting with 2 sessions a week and tapering off after 4 weeks to once weekly, with booster treatments sometimes used monthly or every other month. Acupuncture should be discontinued if there are no apparent effects after 10 to 12 sessions.
"There is continuing debate in the medical community regarding the role of the placebo effect in acupuncture," the review authors write. "The most recent well-powered clinical trials of acupuncture for chronic low back pain showed that sham acupuncture was as effective as real acupuncture. The simplest explanation of such findings is that the specific therapeutic effects of acupuncture, if present, are small, whereas its clinically relevant benefits are mostly attributable to contextual and psychosocial factors, such as patients' beliefs and expectations, attention from the acupuncturist, and highly focused, spatially directed attention on the part of the patient."
Joint clinical practice guidelines from the American College of Physicians and the American Pain Society recommend that clinicians consider acupuncture as one possible treatment option for patients with chronic low back pain refractory to self-care (level of supporting evidence, fair). According to the North American Spine Society, acupuncture offers better short-term pain relief and functional improvement than no treatment, and adding acupuncture to other treatments is more effective than other treatments alone, but high-quality, randomized controlled trials are still needed comparing acupuncture with no treatment and with sham acupuncture.