Acupuncturing a myth: column

Britain’s backs are in terrible shape. We spend more time off work because of back pain than for any other ailment, according to the NHS. So it’s not surprising that we are keen to relieve our suffering. A new study on acupuncture and back pain tries to do just this, though in truth it is as confusing as it is informative.

Published in the Archives of Internal Medicine and performed in the US, the study compared 638 patients with chronic back pain. Each person was randomly ascribed to one of four treatments.

One group received “usual care”. The others were given either “individualised”, “standardised”, or “sham” acupuncture. Individualised meant that the therapist prescribed “distinct points” for that person’s particular problems. Standardised meant that the needles were inserted into points which are “considered effective by experts for chronic low back pain”. Sham acupuncture consisted of a series of movements with a toothpick and cotton wool, designed to make the person feel as though they were having needles inserted into the skin, when in fact there was no penetration at all.

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