An acupuncture trial in four Melbourne emergency departments has found it is just as good as drugs in relieving lower-back pain and that from sprained ankles and migraines.
The finding could open the door to Australian hospitals offering the low-cost Chinese therapy, which is used by more than 1 billion people worldwide for pain relief.
Emergency physicians at The Alfred, Northern, Cabrini and Epworth hospitals partnered with RMIT’s school of health sciences to see if acupuncture could relieve acute pain in hundreds of patients presenting to hospital with either lower-back pain, sprained ankles or migraines.
While data from the study is still being analysed and finalised for publication in a medical journal, one of the researchers, Dr Michael Ben-Meir, said it showed acupuncture offered the same level of pain relief as analgesic drugs when patients rated their pain one hour after treatment.
”Acupuncture was equivalent to what we defined as conventional medicine standard care, which was strong oral analgesia, such as Endone, Panadeine Forte, Voltaren and Valium,” he said.
Dr Ben-Meir, director of Cabrini Hospital’s emergency department, said the randomised controlled study of about 550 patients also found that the combination of acupuncture with standard pharmaceutical care delivered equivalent pain relief to acupuncture alone or standard care alone.
The emergency physician who studied acupuncture nine years ago and has since used it on patients at Epworth and Cabrini said the results aligned with his own experience of its efficacy for acute pain.He said it was particularly good for people who did not want drugs, such as pregnant women, and for those whose pain was not relieved by Western medicine.
”I find acupuncture doesn’t always help all patients, but occasionally it’s the thing that really shifts them and gets them home and gets their symptoms resolved,” he said. ”It has an effect, there’s no doubt about that. It’s just, when do you use it? How often? Which points? And who delivers it? There’s a lot to be thought about and analysed before something like this is a standard therapy.”
The director of emergency medicine at The Alfred hospital, De Villiers Smit, said although he was initially sceptical about acupuncture, the study convinced him it was safe and effective in improving pain management. He said study participants treated with acupuncture also tended to leave hospital earlier, suggesting it sped up emergency department care.
Another chief investigator of the project – the head of the school of health sciences at RMIT and a registered Chinese medicine practitioner, Professor Charlie Xue – said the study showed a very low rate of minor adverse events, such as bleeding at the needling sites.
While about 10 per cent of Australians use acupuncture in community-based clinics, Professor Xue said until now very little research had been done on its use for acute pain in hospital settings.
Dr Ben-Meir said although the exact mechanisms of acupuncture remained unclear, this was also the case for some Western medicines.
He said rising health costs should encourage more scientific assessment of low-risk complementary medicines because new drugs were expensive to develop and could cause side effects.