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Archive for Alternative Medicine



Speaking of CAM and Science – A New Example

by Scott MacStravic

It has often struck me as a writer, that once I initiate research into a given subject, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) most recently (see my posting of Sep 24), I almost always run into a new story on that subject, often in a matter of days.  This time it was: C. Johnson “Study: Acupuncture Works for Back Pain”, Washington Post Sep 24, 2007.

The article is an example of both scientific and economic reasons to consider at least the specific CAM treatment involved, namely acupuncture.  Analysis by German researchers indicated that acupuncture works significantly better than conventional medications and other traditional Western treatments.  Over 1100 patients were randomly assigned to 1) acupuncture; 2) sham acupuncture, or 3) conventional therapy.  In the acupuncture group, 47% of patients improved, compared to only 27% in the conventional group.

One of the particularly interesting findings from this study was that sham acupuncture, i.e. where the treatment is “faked” by not inserting the needles as deeply as acupuncture requires, achieved almost as good results as the real thing, with 44% of patients getting the sham version improved.  While Dr. James  Young of Rush University Medical Center, who was involved in the research, says that we don’t know precisely why acupuncture works, and often treats his own patients that way, it is clear that it does work.

When dealing with pain, the patient often wills improvement, by believing there will be an effect, or where the sham treatment creates such a belief.  This “placebo effect” is particularly strong in pain management, and if it occurs with sham treatment, it makes sense to use it as well.  Apparently, in this research, at least, the conventional medical treatment did not produce nearly as great a placebo effect, or else its objective medical effect was so low that even with its placebo effect, improvement was still significantly less than for either sham or true acupuncture.

Dr. Heinz Endres of Ruhr University Bochum, in Bochum, Germany, reported in an e-mail that “patients experiences not only reduced pain intensity, but also reported improvements in the disability that often results from back pain, and therefore in their quality of life.”  He noted that these findings are in line with a theory that pain signals to the brain can be blocked by competing stimuli, such as the needles used in both forms of acupuncture.

It could be, as Dr. Brian Berman at the University of Maryland’s center for complementary medicine suggested, that acupuncture changes the way the brain processes pain signals, or by releasing natural painkillers in the body.  If this is the case, then there is a logical physiological, as well as psychological reason for the reported success.

The “conventional” treatment includes traditional prescription painkillers, injections, physical therapy, massage, heat therapy, or other treatments, with all patients in the study receiving about ten sessions lasting a half-hour each.  Many include both massage and heat therapy in the CAM category, so even when these were included, the acupuncture as a specific therapy appears to work better, though no results specific to these therapies alone were reported.

Because CAM is such a “loose” category of solutions, and because there are so many different specific therapies and therapists that may offer and deliver treatments, this finding cannot be seen as proof that CAM, in general, works – either this treatment for all problems and all patients, or even for all patients with this problem.  As has been demonstrated many times already, people’s genetic differences often create vastly different levels and types of response to traditional medications and treatments, so it should not be a surprise if the same is true for CAM in general, and for acupuncture treatment of back pain in particular.

Of course, to employers or insurers who are looking for the best and least expensive way to manage workers’ or covered members’ back pain, these findings may provide both a scientific and an economic reason to not only accept acupuncture for back pain, but even to recommend it over conventional treatment.  In the spirit of competition, we should look forward to seeing conventional medicine fight back, perhaps by identifying one particular treatment that does better than acupuncture did in this case.  The more we have rigorous science applied to questions of what works, as contrasted to the sophistry of both politics and the market, the better we will all be in the long run.