The study, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, involved 528 people, with an average age of 41, who sought emergency care at 4 hospitals in and around Melbourne for acute low back pain, migraine or ankle sprains.
All patients rated their pain as at least 4 on a 10-point scale. They were randomly allocated to receive just acupuncture, acupuncture with pain-relieving medication or only pain relieving drugs in addition to standard care for the condition.
One hour after treatment, less than 40% people across all three groups felt any significant pain reduction – defined as a drop of 2 or more pain points – while more than 80% still rated their pain as 4 or more.
However, 48 hours later, the vast majority described their pain-relief treatment as acceptable, with 61% who had received just acupuncture saying they would probably opt for the same treatment again. This compared with 57% of those who received acupuncture plus drugs and 52% of those in the drugs-only group.
'A viable alternative'
The researchers, from RMIT University in Melbourne, say they have been able to demonstrate that acupuncture is a viable alternative to traditional drugs-based pain relief and could be particularly beneficial to patients who are unable to take standard pain-relieving drugs because of other medical conditions.
However, they say they have also established that pain management remains a critical issue, with neither treatment providing adequate, immediate pain relief.
Dr Michael Ben-Meir, director of the emergency department at Cabrini Hospital, which was involved in the research, practises acupuncture. He co-authored the research and says it is reasonable to conclude that acupuncture is a mild-to-moderate pain reliever, equivalent to existing pain relieving drugs.
"If and how acupuncture is incorporated into standard emergency care is a complex challenge yet to be tackled," he says. "I envisage most ED [emergency department] physicians could quickly and easily develop adequate skills to allow them to provide this treatment to suitable and consenting patients."
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