“Back” in the News: Acupuncture Real or Fake Helps Low Back Pain
Dr. Thomas Patavino D.C., MS, F.I.A.M.A

It is nothing new for acupuncture to grab a headline here and there as its mystique has become more mainstream than the taboo mystery that once surrounded the treatment. What is a surprise are the people performing the studies. Until now, most of the research available on acupuncture was performed in the Far East. This seems to be changing. Besides American Medical programs researching the potential of the ancient art form, globally there has been a surge of activity exploring the validity of acupuncture. The most recent study to grab the attention of the associated press throughout national news papers and the focus of an ABC News report was a study performed at Ruhr University Bochum in Bochum, Germany.

The study was comparing the effects of traditional acupuncture, sham(“fake”) acupuncture and conventional medical treatments for the management of chronic low back pain. The study included the results of 1162 patients aged 18 to 86 years who had a history of at least 8 years of chronic low back pain. Traditional acupuncture consisted of the correct placement of needles along specific acupuncture points related to low back pain. The sham acupuncture consisted of placing the needles along random and non specific points not necessarily related to low back pain and at superficial depths far less than traditional acupuncture placement. Finally the conventional treatment consisted of drug therapy, physical therapy and exercise. The results were 47.6% of the patients in the traditional acupuncture group and 44.2% in the sham acupuncture group showed improvement in their low back pain compared to 27.4% in the conventional therapy. That is astounding news for low back sufferers and a great feather in the cap for acupuncture exposure.

What does all this mean? This is something that most people seem a little unclear on. For starters, the study showed that acupuncture and sham acupuncture had nearly twice the success rate of conventional medical treatment for low back pain. The problem with this study is the way people are misinterpreting the results. Sham acupuncture is being labeled as “fake acupuncture”. This is leaving the impression that acupuncture’s effects might be placebo in nature. Many medical physicians are taking that stand based on the results ruling any benefits as a placebo effect. Placebo effect is often interpreted as a sugar pill compared to the real thing in studies. The power of suggestion also falls under this category, so arguably someone could get better just by suggesting to them that they feel better and nothing beyond that was actually done to the patient.

This should not be viewed as the case with acupuncture. For starters, sham acupuncture should be called “non-specific acupuncture” and not “fake” acupuncture. Fake acupuncture would not include needles and the points chosen would not be found on the body because placing needles on the body even at shallow depths will elicit a response. The funny thing about acupuncture is that needle depth will be different at every point on every patient, therefore superficial depths can still stimulate points on people. Secondly, if points were picked near the actual points so the patient would not know if they were in the real group or the sham group, you can still bring balance to the body and see a decrease in symptoms. It is not uncommon for you to treat for one condition and get a response for something else. An example is that you treated points specific to shoulder pain and the patient notices not only does their shoulder feel better, but their acid reflux improved even though no points for reflux were performed during the treatment. The reason is simple; when you balance the body’s energy (the main focus of acupuncture) you stimulate the immune system to correct what is wrong. That means everything that is wrong, so you can bring balance by treating once condition and you can get improvement across the board even if that wasn’t your main objective. In the case of this study, the sham group’s improvement could be accounted for stimulating points not specific to low back pain, but bringing balance to the body so pain decreased because of the nature of energy balance. Another thing to consider is a technique called surrounding the dragon. This technique places needles around a problem area and are not specific traditional points related to a specific condition. If the sham points inadvertently were placed around a problem area, a positive response could be elicited accidentally.

So in short, before nay sayers act to quickly challenge the validity of real acupuncture versus “fake acupuncture”, they should focus on the main element of this study. Acupuncture, even non specific to the condition, nearly doubled the results of improvement than conventional methods. This should be a breath of fresh air for those seeking options for chronic low back pain. Acupuncture is not only becoming more accepted, but also utilized and having the scientific studies to support its use. In other words, if there is a question of validity, then look know further than the studies for the proof to “back” it up. Dr. Thomas Patavino can be reached for questions or comments at Thoracic Park Alternative Health, 60 Waterbury Rd. Suite C, Prospect, CT 06712. 203-758-7250 or by email at dr.tpatavino@sbcglobal.net.


1. German Acupuncture Trials (GERAC) for Chronic Low Back Pain Randomized, Multicenter, Blinded, Parallel-Group Trial With 3 Groups
Michael Haake, PhD, MD; Hans-Helge Müller, PhD; Carmen Schade-Brittinger; Heinz D. Basler, PhD; Helmut Schäfer, PhD; Christoph Maier, PhD, MD; Heinz G. Endres, MD; Hans J. Trampisch, PhD; Albrecht Molsberger, PhD, MD
Arch Intern Med. 2007;167:1892-1898.