Emergency medicine is not all about life and death situations and high-tech solutions. Our study, the largest of its kind in the world, shows using acupuncture in the emergency department can relieve acute pain.
The study, published today in the Medical Journal of Australia, finds acupuncture is as effective as medication in treating pain for lower back pain and ankle sprain. But it took more than an hour for either to provide adequate pain relief.
Yet, there are several barriers to using acupuncture routinely in emergency departments.
What is acupuncture and who practices it?
Using acupuncture to relieve pain involves placing needles in various parts of the body to stimulate the release of endorphins and other neurochemicals, which can act as the body’s naturally occurring pain relievers.
For generations various cultures around the world have used acupuncture to treat multiple conditions, including providing pain relief. And in Australia, it is reimbursed through the Medicare Benefits Schedule when administered by a medical doctor.
Further reading: Modern acupuncture: panacea or placebo?
Why we ran the study and what we did
Anecdotally, we were aware that several emergency department doctors, in both public and private hospitals in Australia, were treating patients’ pain with acupuncture. But until this large federally-funded study, no-one had set up a trial like it to show how effective it was.
Our trial was an “equivalence” study, which means we aimed to see if the different treatments were equivalent rather than seeing if they were better than placebo. We did this as it would not be ethical to give a placebo to people coming to an emergency department for pain relief.
So, we randomly assigned more than 500 patients to receive standard painkillers, standard painkillers plus acupuncture, or acupuncture alone when they presented with back pain, migraine or ankle sprain at four Melbourne hospitals (some private, some public). While the patients knew which treatment they had, the researchers involved in assessing their pain didn’t (known as a single-blind study).
The type of acupuncture we used included applying needles at specific points on the body for each condition, as well as along points chosen by the treating acupuncturist. This was to reflect what would happen during regular clinical practice.
Doctors who were also qualified medical acupuncturists and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine (registered in Victoria with the Chinese Medicine Registration Board of Australia) performed the acupuncture.
After treatment, we assessed patients’ pain after an hour, and every hour until discharge. We also rang them for an update 24-48 hours after being discharged.