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.
What we found
We found acupuncture, either alone or with painkillers, was equivalent to drugs-alone in providing pain relief for lower back pain, ankle sprain, but not for migraine.
When patients looked back on their treatment, the vast majority (around 80%) were satisfied with their treatment regardless of which treatment they had.
However, no treatment provided good pain relief until after the first hour.
What are the implications?
Our findings suggest acupuncture may be a viable option for patients who come to the emergency department for pain relief. This is especially important for those who cannot or choose not to have analgesic drugs.
This is also an important finding in light of the potential for side effects and abuse with opioid analgesics, which might otherwise be used to relieve pain in the emergency department.
Previous research shows using acupuncture to treat chronic pain is comparable to morphine, is safer and doesn’t lead to dependence. Our findings suggest acupuncture also has a role in treating acute pain.
However, our research raises several issues, not only about conducting such research but also in implementing our findings in practice.
We had to overcome many ethical, policy and regulatory issues before we started. These included issues around the qualifications of medical and non-medical acupuncturists and employing traditional Chinese medicine practitioners to deliver acupuncture in a western medical hospital.
And to more widely implement our findings, we need to discuss the type of practitioners best placed to deliver acupuncture in hospital, what type of training they need to work in the emergency department and what type of conditions they should treat.
Hopefully, our study will spark further research to address these issues and lead to the development of safe and effective protocols for acute pain relief that may involve combining both modern and ancient forms of medicine to achieve rapid and effective analgesia for all emergency department patients.
Authors: Marc Cohen, Professor of Health Sciences, RMIT University