Effectiveness of Acupuncture in Back Pain Treatment Depends on Patient Attitude, Study Suggests

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Patients’ view on acupuncture prior to starting a treatment course for back pain heavily influences how effective that treatment will be, a new study from the University of Southampton suggests.

“People who started out with very low expectations of acupuncture — who thought it probably would not help them — were more likely to report less benefit as treatment went on,” lead researcher Dr. Felicity Bishop explained in a statement released earlier this month.

Back pain is a major problem across the world — experts estimate it affects about 80% of the population in some way — and is a leading cause of disability.

In order to gauge the impact of psychology on the effectiveness of acupuncture treatment, Bishop recruited 485 people who were planning on undergoing treatment for back pain. The patients filled out questionnaires designed to capture psychological factors, demographic characteristics, clinical information and data on back-related disability prior to their treatment, as well as two weeks later, three months later and six months later.

Starting attitudes toward acupuncture strongly correlated with pain outcomes, the researchers found.

Moreover, patients who felt more positive about their back pain treatment were less likely to experience back-related disability. “In particular, they experienced less disability over the course of treatment when they came to see their back pain as more controllable, when they felt they had better understanding of their back pain, when they felt better able to cope with it, were less emotional about it, and when they felt their back pain was going to have less of an impact on their lives,” Bishop said.

She suggested this means acupuncturists should focus building relationships and on managing patients’ emotions during treatment courses.

Dr. Stephen Simpson, director of research at Arthritis Research UK, said in the same statement that the study gives new insight into the perception of pain in general and the impact of the placebo effect.

The study was funded by Arthritis Research UK and has been published in the Journal of Clinical Pain.

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