Acupuncture ‘as useful as painkillers in emergency departments’

20 June 2017

Acupuncture can be as effective as painkillers when it comes to treating back pain or a sprained ankle.

Acupuncture can be as effective as painkillers when it comes to treating back pain or a sprained ankle, researchers claim.

Academics from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, have studied the impact of acupuncture, a form of alternative medicine in which thin needles are inserted into the body, on patients at emergency departments.

In what they describe as the "world's largest randomised controlled trial" of the practice in emergency rooms, the researchers claim that acupuncture was as effective as pain medicine in providing long-term relief for patients who arrived at the hospitals in considerable pain.

"Emergency nurses and doctors need a variety of pain-relieving options when treating patients, given the concerns around opioids such as morphine, which carry the risk of addiction when used long-term," said lead author Professor Marc Cohen. "Our study has shown acupuncture is a viable alternative and would be especially beneficial for patients who are unable to take standard pain-relieving drugs because of other medical conditions."

For the trial, the researchers analysed 528 patients in the emergency departments of four Melbourne hospitals, with those admitted seeking treatment for acute lower back pain, migraines or ankle sprains. Patients who identified their level of pain as at least four on a 10-point scale randomly received one of three types of treatment: acupuncture alone, acupuncture plus pharmacotherapy or pharmacotherapy alone.

One hour after treatment, less than 40 percent of patients across all three groups felt any significant pain reduction (two or more pain points), while more than 80 percent continued to have a pain rating of at least four.

But 48 hours later, the vast majority found their treatment acceptable, with 82.8 percent of acupuncture-only patients saying they would probably or definitely repeat their treatment, compared with 80.8 percent in the combined group, and 78.2 percent in the pharmacotherapy-only group.

Looking to the future, the researchers hope to investigate whether more emergency departments can offer acupuncture, and ways to improve pain management overall.

The full study has been published in the Medical Journal of Australia.

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