Pain relief: Acupuncture can be an equivalent to pain-killing drugs, a hospital trial has found. Photo: Supplied
Acupuncture is just as good as drugs at relieving pain in people's lower backs and from sprained ankles and migraines, a ground-breaking hospital trial has found.
The extraordinary finding could open the door to Australian hospitals offering the low-cost Chinese medicine therapy used by more than 1 billion people worldwide for pain relief, particularly in Asia.
Emergency physicians at the Alfred, Northern, Cabrini and Epworth hospitals in Melbourne partnered with RMIT University's school of health sciences to see whether acupuncture could relieve acute pain in patients presenting to hospital with either lower back pain, sprained ankles or migraines.
While data of the study is still being analysed and finalised for publication in a medical journal, one of the researchers, Michael Ben-Meir, said it showed acupuncture offered the same level of pain relief as analgesic drugs when patients rated their pain one hour after treatment.
''Acupuncture was equivalent to what we defined as conventional medicine standard care which was strong oral analgesia such as Endone, Panadeine Forte, Voltaren and Valium,'' he said.
Dr Ben-Meir, director of Cabrini Hospital's emergency department, said the randomised controlled study of about 550 patients also found that the combination of acupuncture with standard pharmaceutical care delivered the equivalent pain relief to acupuncture alone and standard care alone.
The physician, who studied acupuncture nine years ago and has used it on his patients, said the results aligned with his own experience of its efficacy for acute pain. He said it was particularly good for people who did not want drugs, such as pregnant women, and for those whose pain was not relieved by Western medicine.
''I find acupuncture doesn't always help all patients, but occasionally it's the thing that gets them home and gets their symptoms resolved,'' he said. ''There's a lot to be thought about and analysed before something like this is a standard therapy.''
Director of emergency services at the Alfred Hospital, De Villiers Smit, said although he was initially sceptical about acupuncture, the study had convinced him it was a safe and effective therapy that could improve pain management in emergency departments. ''About 1.3 billion people use acupuncture on a daily basis, so to me, there must be something in it,'' Dr Smit said.
Another chief investigator of the project, who is head of the School of Health Sciences at RMIT and a registered Chinese medicine practitioner, Charlie Xue, said the study was exciting and showed a very low rate of minor adverse events such as bleeding at the site of needling.
Professor Xue said while some medical practitioners were initially resistant to the idea of Chinese medicine being used in hospitals, most were convinced of its value after they had seen it being done.
About 10 per cent of Australians use acupuncture for ailments in community-based clinics.
Dr Ben-Meir said rising health costs should encourage more scientific assessment of complementary medicines.