Acupuncture Reduces Chronic Neck Pain; Massage Benefits Still Unclear

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Acupuncture and Chronic Neck Pain

Acupuncture offers relief from chronic neck pain, while there is little reliable evidence on the effectiveness of massage, according to two new systematic reviews.

Acupuncture does not "cure" neck pain, and relief appears to last only a few weeks or months. Patients may thus need periodic booster treatments, says lead study author Kien Trinh, M.D., of McMaster University in Canada.

The massage review concludes, "Due to the limitations of existing studies, we are unable to make any firm statement to guide clinical practice." Bodhi Haraldsson, a registered massage therapist in British Columbia, Canada, led the study team.

The two studies are part of a series designed to summarize the most current scientific evidence on treatments for neck pain due to "mechanical" problems such as whiplash and muscle strains. Such injuries are common, disabling and costly.

Ten percent of males and 17 percent of females report neck pain that lasts longer than six months, according to a study cited in the massage review. Both new reviews excluded patients with neck pain caused by major illnesses or injuries such as viral infections or fractures.

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The reviews appear in the most recent issue of The Cochrane Library, a publication of The Cochrane Collaboration, an international organization that evaluates medical research. Systematic reviews draw evidence-based conclusions about medical practice after considering both the content and quality of existing medical trials on a topic.

The acupuncture study comprised 10 trials with a total of 661 adult participants. The studies compared a number of acupuncture approaches to no treatment, sham treatments or other "manual therapies" such as mobilization, massage or traction. Most of the studies included at least five treatment sessions.

"The specific effects of acupuncture are short-term, but have important clinical treatment benefits," conclude the review authors.

These findings are based on a wide range of patients, treatment techniques and outcomes, said Dr. Partap Khalsa at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The next step is to conduct more well-defined studies to "optimize" the findings, said Khalsa, who was not involved with either review.

For some subgroups of patients with mechanical neck disorders, he said, acupuncture may be the best treatment while different options may provide greater relief for others. "We just don't know that right now."

Trinh calls for larger and longer trials

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