Doctors from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore and the University of Vermont College of Medicine, Burlington published a case vignette in the New England Journal of Medicine recommending acupuncture for the treatment of lower back pain. The article cites that patients with lower back pain account for over $90 billion in annual health care expenses in the US. The doctors conclude that acupuncture is an effective means for treating lower back pain based partly on a recent study of 6,359 patients published in Spine1. For the lower back pain patient in the case study presented, 10-12 acupuncture treatments over an 8 week period are recommended.
The doctors cite physiological phenomena that measure the effects of acupuncture. Local anesthesia at needle insertion sites block the the analgesic effects of acupuncture showing that acupuncture is dependent upon neural innervation2. Acupuncture has been proven to cause the release of endogenous opioids in brain-stem, subcortical, and limbic structures3,4. Acupuncture has also been proven to induce the secretion of adrenocorticotropic hormone and cortisol from the pituitary gland thereby creating a systemic anti-inflammatory response5. Functional MRI studies in humans reveal that acupuncture stimulates limbic and basal forebrain areas involved in pain processing6. PET scan MRIs (positron-emission tomography) show that acupuncture increases opioid binding potential in the brain for several days7. Acupuncture has also been proven to mechanically stimulate connective tissues8, release adenosine at the site of needle stimulation9, and increase local blood blow10. The doctors then cite clinical trials showing the efficaciousness of acupuncture in the treatment of thousands of patients10-15.
Despite this overwhelming evidence proving the mechanisms of action and efficaciousness of acupuncture, skeptics were outraged at the publication of an article supportive of acupuncture in the venerable New England Journal of Medicine. An article recently posted in the Forbes “science business” section stated that the article is “embarrassing” and that acupuncture “infiltrates” the University of Maryland Medical School. In the article, the author calls acupuncture “pseudoscience” and states that it is based on “magical thinking of non-existent life-force.” The skeptic author’s only proof of his theory is that one of the many studies cited in the article found that acupuncture was only 47.6% effective for the treatment of lower back pain and that sham acupuncture was 44.2% effective. Therefore, the author concludes that using “toothpicks” randomly on the human body will have the same pain relieving effects as acupuncture. What the author fails to mention in the Forbes attack article is that conventional western medicine therapy (a combination of drugs, physical therapy, and exercise) was only 27.4% effective in that very same study. Should we therefore abolish western medicine by MDs and call it pseudoscience? Acupuncturists have noted that the success of sham acupuncture noted in that particular study of 1,162 patients in Germany reveals that poorly placed acupuncture needles also derive benefit for the patient.
The author in the Forbes article does have an agenda, he calls for the elimination of the NCCAM (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine), a division of the NIH (National Institutes of Health). He states that since acupuncture is poorly supported by research, the NCCAM should be abolished. The authors of the New England Journal of Medicine article contend that more research needs to be conducted on the efficacy of acupuncture based on existing and promising research. The authors suggest continuing acupuncture education and research as a means to better serve the public with quality medicine.
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