Acupuncture for Neck Pain: Let's Look at the Research
By Tina Beychok, Associate Editor
Various studies have placed the lifetime prevalence of neck pain at anywhere from 26 percent to 71 percent. In one study, 10 percent of men and 17 percent of women reported neck pain lasting up to six months.
Another study found that 22 percent of people experienced some sort of neck pain. Clearly, neck pain can be a tremendous burden on the health care system and on people in general, particularly in terms of doctor visits, sick leave, disability and lost productivity.
Acupuncture quickly is becoming an alternative to conventional medical therapy for treating neck pain, which usually consists of over-the-counter pain relievers and/or physical therapy. Thus, the question now becomes, can acupuncture be quantified as an effective treatment for this condition? In a recent study,1 results of which appear in the Jan. 15, 2007 issue of Spine, researchers performed a meta-analysis of studies that evaluated the use of acupuncture for neck pain. The goal of the study was to quantify acupuncture's overall effectiveness as a therapy in treating the condition.
After doing a search for all published, randomized, control trial studies of acupuncture for neck pain, the researchers graded the studies in terms of methodological quality. The studies were graded using both the Jadad Quality Scale (a five-point scale that measures study trial quality in terms of such criteria as randomization, appropriateness, description, double-blinding and follow-up) and the Cochrane grading system for allocation concealment (the minimum information on validity that should be reported within the study). Ten studies considered acceptable, based on those criteria, were selected for review.
In looking at those studies, the researchers found moderate evidence that acupuncture was more effective than inactive sham treatment for chronic neck pain when measurements were taken immediately posttreatment. Moderate evidence also was found in favor of acupuncture treatment over sham treatment when the measurement was done at a follow-up, shortly after treatment. For neck pain with radiating symptoms, there also was moderate evidence that patients who received acupuncture treatment reported less pain at short-term follow-up than those patients who were placed on a waiting list for treatment. Furthermore, better outcomes were associated with more acupuncture sessions. The authors recommended that ideally, six sessions or more should be considered optimal for symptom relief.
Based on their findings, the researchers concluded: "The specific effects of acupuncture appear to be short-term, but have important clinical treatment benefits ... This is consistent with other reviews on acupuncture for elbow pain and back pain." They added: "In our review of other therapies for neck disorders, the results were disappointing."
Trinh K, Graham N, Gross A, et al. Acupuncture for neck disorders. Spine, Jan. 15, 2007;32(2):236-43.