The 31 million Americans who suffer from chronic back pain may be able to get relief from a surprising source: acupuncture.
But even more surprising may be the fact that sham acupuncture had a similar effect -- leading some to believe that relief from back pain may be more in the head.
A new study, published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, finds that six months of acupuncture treatment is more effective at treating lower back pain than conventional methods like medications, exercise and physical therapy.
Learn more about acupuncture treatments for back pain and other conditions here.
Chronic back pain is a long-term, disabling condition that is one of the most common reasons cited for missing work. Experts estimate that more than 80 percent of Americans will experience back pain at some point in their lives.
Patients and doctors alike have long debated the best way to treat this condition. Some argue that pain medications and anti-inflammatory drugs are the best options. Others rest in bed, do strengthening exercises or even seek surgery.
However, the new research may lead more to consider acupuncture as a possibility.
"Acupuncture has a low risk of side effects and few contraindications," said study co-author Dr. Heinz Endres, a specialist in clinical pharmacology, epidemiology and medical informatics at the Ruhr-University in Germany. "Acupuncture represents a highly promising and effective treatment option for chronic back pain, especially in patients with a long history of unsuccessful conventional treatment."
Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine that entails the insertion and manipulation of needles -- in this case to stimulate specific points in a patient's back thought to be connected to pain sensation.
Dr. Endres and other researchers in Germany compared the effectiveness of acupuncture to conventional treatments. They analyzed over 1,000 patients with chronic lower back pain who received either true acupuncture, sham acupuncture or conventional treatments.
Patients were randomly assigned to each treatment group, and those in the sham acupuncture group believed they were receiving true acupuncture. Everyone received two 30-minute treatments per week. After six months, researchers evaluated improvement in pain and functional ability.
Almost half of the patients in both acupuncture groups benefited from the study, reporting at least a 30 percent decrease in pain or 12 percent improvement in functional ability. In contrast, only one fourth of the patients in the conventional therapy group reported an improvement.
"There are many widely used and recommended conservative, nonsurgical forms of treatment such as physical therapy, massage, chiropractic manipulation, or short-term use of medications like ibuprofen," said Dr. Endres. "Unlike these treatments, acupuncture has not yet been recommended as a routine therapy. We think this will change with our study."
But strangely, sham acupuncture -- inserting needles randomly and superficially into patients' backs while avoiding locations thought to relieve pain -- proved just as effective as the real thing.