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Latest Research: Latest findings and research on what works in Alternative Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine

West Meets East

Acupuncture and sham acupuncture were equally effective, and better than no treatment for low-back pain.

The Acupuncture Randomized Trial in Low Back Pain was one of three sections of a larger project initiated by the German Federal Committee of Physicians and Health Insurers. In this section, 298 people who had experienced benign low-back pain for more than 6 months were randomized to 12 sessions of treatment with acupuncture over 8 weeks, to 12 sham acupuncture sessions (placement of needles not conforming to acupuncture guidelines), or to a waiting list (no intervention). The trial scrupulously conformed to accepted clinical trial standards.

At 8 weeks, both acupuncture and sham acupuncture produced significantly less low-back pain than no treatment. Acupuncture and sham acupuncture were equally effective in improving quality-of-life endpoints (at 26 and 52 weeks) compared with no treatment.

Comment: The foundation of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is, in a way, the antithesis of Western medicine. TCM practitioners understand health and disease as the correspondence of universal opposites, yin and yang, simultaneous but separate, which, when in intrinsic balance, maintain well-being and health. The inductive correspondence between specific qualities (e.g., hot-cold, north-south) is manifest in clinical phenomena and can be manipulated by procedures, such as acupuncture, that foster the underlying state of balance. Western medicine is based largely on the epistemologic assumption that perception (observation) and rationality (analysis) define truth. Empiric science grows whenever there is some success. The Greeks from the 5th century B.C. established inductive correspondences between health and physical elements, and they professed to alter disease by manipulation of the dry, wet, hot, and cold. As critical inquiry and skepticism were practiced over the subsequent centuries, Western medicine evolved without the inductive emphasis.

Inefficacy has sifted out many treatments in the East and the West (e.g., blood letting), but acupuncture has remained, no matter its concepts or its basis. The trial done in Germany suggests efficacy for acupuncture but exposes the fundamental question of just which aspect of the experience is the effective intervention.

— Thomas Walshe, MD

Dr. Walshe is Chief, Division of General Neurology, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Assistant Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School, Boston.

Published in Journal Watch Neurology June 8, 2006

Brinkhaus B et al. Acupuncture in patients with chronic low back pain: A randomized controlled trial. Arch Intern Med 2006 Feb 27; 166:450-7.

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