The American College of Physicians formally recommends acupuncture for the treatment of back pain. Published in the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine, clinical guidelines were developed by the American College of Physicians (ACP) to present recommendations based on evidence. Citing quality evidence in modern research, the ACP notes that nonpharmacologic treatment with acupuncture for the treatment of chronic low back pain is recommended. The official grade by the ACP is a “strong recommendation.” [1]

A major goal of the recommendation is for acupuncture and other nonpharmacological therapies to replace drug therapy as a primary source of pain relief. Treatment with opioids is only recommended, with an official “weak recommendation,” when other modalities do not provide adequate relief. A strong recommendation is also made by the American College of Physicians for the treatment of both acute and subacute lower back pain with heat, massage, acupuncture, and spinal manipulation. [2] The recommendations were approved by the ACP Board of Regents and involves evidence based recommendations from doctors at the Penn Health System (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center (Minnesota), and the Yale School of Medicine (New Haven, Connecticut). 

The American College of Physicians notes that approximately 25% of USA adults have had, at the very minimum, a one day lower back pain episode within the past three months. The socioeconomic impact of lower back pain in the USA was approximately $100 billion in the year 2006 . The costs include medical care and indirect costs due to lost wages and declines in productivity. [3] Recommendations for treatment options, including those for the use of acupuncture, include considerations of positive medical patient outcomes, the total number of back pain episodes, duration between episodes, alleviation of lower back pain, improvement in function of the back, and work disability reductions. Recommendations are for both radicular and nonradicular lower back pain.

The target audience for the American College of Physicians recommendations includes all doctors, other clinicians, and the adult population with lower back pain. The ACP notes, “Moderate-quality evidence showed that acupuncture was associated with moderately lower pain intensity and improved function compared with no acupuncture at the end of treatment .” [4] In agreement, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (National Institutes of Health) notes that acupuncture is an effective treatment modality for the relief of chronic lower back pain. [5]

These findings are consistent with those published in Mayo Clinic proceedings finding that acupuncture is effective for the treatment of lower back pain. The same Mayo Clinic report notes that acupuncture does not cause any significant adverse effects. [6] The Mayo Clinic findings apply to both nociceptive and non-nociceptive pain. Nociceptive back pain includes musculoskeletal inflammation and pain involving nerve cells wherein nociceptors are activated. Nociceptors are afferent neurons in the skin, muscles, joints, and other areas. For example, nerve impingement (often referred to as a “pinched nerve”) produces one type of nociceptive pain.

Non-nociceptive pain does not involve inflammation and is more relevant to pain processing in the central nervous system. One type of non-nociceptive pain condition is fibromyalgia and acupuncture has been confirmed as an effective treatment modality for this condition. The Mayo Clinic proceedings note, “Martin et al. found a significant improvement between electroacupuncture vs sham electroacupuncture. Differences were seen on the Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire (FIQ) scores for fatigue and anxiety.” [7]


The Mayo Clinic and American College of Physicians findings are consistent with additional quality research. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (New York) and University of York (United Kingdom) researchers note “We have provided the most robust evidence from high-quality trials on acupuncture for chronic pain. The synthesis of high-quality IPD found that acupuncture was more effective than both usual care and sham acupuncture. Acupuncture is one of the more clinically effective physical therapies for osteoarthritis and is also cost-effective if only high-quality trials are analysed.” [8]

Doctors understand the true need for effective pain management. Nonpharmacological solutions are important for a variety of reasons including prevention of addiction, effective relief of pain, and prevention of adverse effects. This is often of heightened concern during pregnancy and for children. As a result, university hospitals integrate acupuncture into usual care settings to improve patient outcomes. For example, pediatric doctors at the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco provide acupuncture to children, including non-needle laser acupuncture. At the University of California hospital, acupuncture is made available for both inpatients and outpatients. Dr. Kim notes that acupuncture reduces nausea up to 70%. She adds that acupuncture is also effective for significant reductions in post-surgical pain and chronic headaches. [9]

Recently, researchers have discovered how acupuncture stops pain and provides other forms of relief for patients. Breakthrough research conducted by University of South Florida (Tampa) and Fujian University of Traditional Chinese Medicine (Fuzhou) researchers documents how acupuncture stops pain. The researchers note, “acupuncture exerts a remarkable analgesic effect on SCI [spinal cord injury] by also inhibiting production of microglial cells through attenuation of p38MAPK and ERK activation.” [10]

Microglia are central nervous system immunity cells that secrete proinflammatory and neurotoxic mediators. Acupuncture reduces pain by attenuating this response. The researchers also document that acupuncture provides neuroprotection. The researchers note that acupuncture prevents brain damage in the hippocampus by “preventing microglial activation.” The University of South Florida members of the research team were from the Department of Neurosurgery and Brain Repair and the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences. Funding was provided by the United States Department of Defense, University of South Florida Neurosurgery and Brain Repair, and the James and Esther King Biomedical Research Foundation.

The aforementioned research reveals an important biochemical mechanism involved in acupuncture’s ability to alleviate pain and reduce harmful inflammation. Researchers focus on other mechanisms activated by administration of acupuncture treatments. For example, laboratory investigations reveal how acupuncture regulates blood pressure.

University of California (Irvine) researchers find acupuncture effective for the treatment of high blood pressure. In a controlled laboratory study, University of California researchers have proven that electroacupuncture at acupoint ST36 (Zusanli) promotes enkephalin production, which dampens proinflammatory excitatory responses from the sympathetic nervous system that cause hypertension. Specifically, electroacupuncture regulates preproenkephalin gene expression, a precursor substance that encodes proenkephalin, which then stimulates the production of enkephalin. [11]

The formal recommendation for the use of acupuncture in cases of lower back pain by the American College of Physicians is based on modern research. Mayo Clinic findings and research from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (New York) and the University of York support this recommendation. In response to the needs of patients, doctors have already implemented acupuncture into several hospitals throughout the USA and both inpatient and outpatient acupuncture treatments are available.

Now, modern scientific investigations reveal how acupuncture works. University of South Florida and Fujian University of Traditional Chinese Medicine researchers confirm acupuncture’s ability to attenuate microglial activation. University of California researchers have quantified acupuncture’s ability to control inflammation by regulating enkephalins. In addition, the NCCAOM (National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine) provides professional certification for acupuncturists, which ensures standards of excellence for licensed acupuncturists. Given the large body of supportive research and the administrative support for providing safe and effective acupuncture to the general public, expect to see greater implementation of acupuncture into usual care settings.

References
1. Qaseem, Amir, Timothy J. Wilt, Robert M. McLean, and Mary Ann Forciea. "Noninvasive Treatments for Acute, Subacute, and Chronic Low Back Pain: A Clinical Practice Guideline From the American College of PhysiciansNoninvasive Treatments for Acute, Subacute, and Chronic Low Back Pain." Annals of Internal Medicine (2017).
2. Qaseem, et al. Annals of Internal Medicine (2017).

3. Katz J.N. Lumbar disc disorders and low-back pain: socioeconomic factors and consequences.J Bone Joint Surg Am200688 Suppl 2214.
4. Lam M. Galvin R. Curry P. Effectiveness of acupuncture for nonspecific chronic low back pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis.Spine (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1976) 201338212438.
5. ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Low-Back-Pain-Fact-Sheet. Low Back Pain Fact Sheet, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health.
6. Nahin, Richard L., Robin Boineau, Partap S. Khalsa, Barbara J. Stussman, and Wendy J. Weber. "Evidence-based evaluation of complementary health approaches for pain management in the United States." In Mayo Clinic Proceedings, vol. 91, no. 9, pp. 1292-1306. Elsevier, 2016.
7. Martin DP, Sletten CD, Williams BA, Berger IH. Improvement
in fibromyalgia symptoms with acupuncture: results of a randomized
controlled trial. Mayo Clin Proc. 2006;81(6):749-757.
8. MacPherson, H., A. Vickers, M. Bland, D. Torgerson, M. Corbett, E. Spackman, P. Saramago et al. "Acupuncture for chronic pain and depression in primary care: a programme of research." (2017).

9. Leslie Lingaas. ucsf.edu/news/2014/04/113966/acupuncture-helps-young-patients-manage-pain. Acupuncture Helps Pediatric Patients Manage Pain and Nausea, 2014.
10. Lin, Lili, Nikola Skakavac, Xiaoyang Lin, Dong Lin, Mia C. Borlongan, Cesar V. Borlongan, and Chuanhai Cao. "Acupuncture-induced analgesia: the role of microglial inhibition." Cell transplantation 25, no. 4 (2016): 621-628.
11. Cevic, C and Iseri, SO. The effect of acupuncture on high blood pressure of patients using antihypertensive drugs. Acupuncture & electro-therapeutics research 2013; 38(1-2): 1-15. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23724695.

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