Physical Therapy for Back Pain Lowers Healthcare Costs

By Pat Anson, Editor

If you have lower back pain and get it treated with physical therapy first, you are significantly less likely to later need opioid medication or high cost medical services, according to a new study in Health Services Research.

Researchers at the University of Washington and George Washington University analyzed health insurance claims for over 50 million people from 2009 to 2013, tracking patients who had a new diagnosis of lower back pain.

Compared with patients who saw a physical therapist later or not at all, those who saw a physical therapist first had an 89% lower probability of having an opioid prescription, a 28% lower probability of having an MRI or advanced imaging, and a 15% lower probability of having an emergency department visit. Their healthcare costs were also significantly lower for out-patient care, pharmacy and out-of-pocket expenses.

“We found important relationships among physical therapy intervention, utilization, and cost of services and the effect on opioid prescriptions," said co-author Ken Harwood, PT, a professor of physical therapy at George Washington University.

One unexpected finding is that patients who had physical therapy first had a 19% greater chance of being hospitalized.

“Having an in-patient hospitalization is not necessarily a bad outcome for a patient. PTs (physical therapists) provide care that aims to resolve LBP (lower back pain) by addressing musculoskeletal causes first, but if the problem does not get resolved, PTs may refer patients appropriately for more specialized care,” the study found.

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One out of every four Americans will experience at least one day of lower back pain every three months. Researchers say about half will be treated with opioid medication, while physical therapy (12%), exercise (19%) and psychological therapy (8%) will be recommended far less often.    

"Given our findings in light of the national opioid crisis, state policymakers, insurers, and providers may want to review current policies and reduce barriers to early and frequent access to physical therapists as well as to educate patients about the potential benefits of seeing a physical therapist first," said lead author Bianca Frogner, PhD, a professor and health economist at the University of Washington Center for Health Workforce Studies.

Lower back pain is the world’s leading cause of disability, affecting about 540 million people at any given time. But there is little consensus on the best way to treat it.

A recent series of reviews appearing in The Lancet medical journal found that lower back pain is usually treated with inappropriate tests, risky surgeries and painkillers.

“The majority of cases of low back pain respond to simple physical and psychological therapies that keep people active and enable them to stay at work,” said lead author Professor Rachelle Buchbinder of Monash University in Australia. “Often, however, it is more aggressive treatments of dubious benefit that are promoted and reimbursed.”

Can a Junk Food Diet Cause Osteoarthritis?

By Steve Weakley

Does what’s in your gut influence the pain in your knees? New research on mice at the University of Rochester Medical School suggests that it might, but the results are far from conclusive.

Researchers fed one group of laboratory mice a high fat diet that included red meat and milkshakes, and another group of mice a healthier low-fat diet. Both groups of mice had their knees surgically damaged to mimic the effects of osteoarthritis -- “wear and tear” arthritis that is often associated with age, obesity or injury.

Twelve weeks of the high fat diet made the mice obese and diabetic and led to more seriously damaged joints. It also created an imbalance of harmful bacteria in their digestive tracts. 

One group of the fat mice were then given a supplement containing the prebiotic fiber oligofructose (also available as an over-the-counter probiotic).  The researchers said the supplement did not cause the mice to lose weight, but it did greatly improve their blood sugar levels and the balance of healthy bacteria in their gut.  More importantly, the study concludes, the mice that were given the supplement also had healthier joints than the control group.

The University of Rochester study concluded that prebiotics and the correction of gut bacteria might help protect against osteoarthritis caused by obesity. And one of the researchers, Dr. Robert Mooney, told Forbes that the study suggests osteoarthritis may be accelerated or even caused by inflammation.

"That reinforces the idea that osteoarthritis is another secondary complication of obesity--just like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, which all have inflammation as part of their cause," said Mooney. "Perhaps, they all share a similar root, and the microbiome (digestive bacteria) might be that common root."

However a critique by Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) said that conclusion might be premature.

“It's presumptuous to conclude that an imbalance of gut bacteria could be directly linked to risk of osteoarthritis in humans from the results of a study in mice with artificially induced knee damage. As such, there's no compelling evidence that prebiotics would prevent or reverse osteoarthritis,” the NHS said.

“Aiming for a healthy weight through a good diet combined with physical activity is a better strategy for reducing the risk of osteoarthritis (as well as many other long-term conditions) than taking prebiotics to try to combat the effects of a poor diet. “

Osteoarthritis is a joint disorder that leads to progressive joint damage. It can affect any joint in the body but is most commonly felt in weight bearing joints such as the knees and hips. Nearly 40 percent of Americans over the age of 45 have some degree of knee osteoarthritis.

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Previous studies have also found a link between a high fat diet and osteoarthritis.  Australian researchers reported last year that a diet rich in animal fats, butter and palm oil weakens cartilage and produces osteoarthritis-like changes in the knee.

"We also found changes in the bone under the cartilage on a diet rich in saturated fat," said Professor Yin Xiao of Queensland University of Technology’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation. "Our findings suggest that it's not wear and tear but diet that has a lot to do with the onset of osteoarthritis.”

The University of Rochester researchers hope to include humans in future studies on the effects of diet on osteoarthritis.

BioWave Device Helps Vietnam Vet with Chronic Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

A few months ago, Vietnam veteran Gregg Gaston was depressed and suicidal. Gaston shared his story with PNN readers in a guest column, telling how he suffered from years of chronic pain caused by a failed back surgery, peripheral neuropathy and post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).

Despite his pain, Gaston’s doctor told him he was being cut back to a single dose of tramadol, a mild opioid analgesic. That was the last straw for Gaston, who at the age of 62 was fed up with debilitating pain and doctors who no longer wanted to treat it with opioids. In protest, Gaston fired his doctor and refused to fill his last prescription for tramadol.

GREGG GASTON

GREGG GASTON

“I've given up and am waiting now to die. I've lived a great life and have no expectations of my quality of life improving,” Gaston wrote.  “Common sense is fast disappearing. I'm done fighting.”

Fast forward three months and there’s been a remarkable change in Gaston’s mood and quality of life. The folks at BioWave, a Connecticut medical device company, saw Gaston’s column and sent him one of their neurostimulation units, which use high frequency electrical impulses to block pain signals.

“I was skeptical at first. I really was,” Gaston says. “Being at the breaking point and feeling desperate, I was only too eager to try it. And for me, it really works. I’m not 100 percent pain free, but I can get out of bed in the morning. It’s great, it really is.”

Before he started using BioWave, Gaston says his pain level was usually a 7 or 8 on the pain scale. Today, even on a bad day, it’s only a 3.

“If you have chronic pain you know what a difference that is,” he says. “I used to often sleep no more than 2 hours at a time, now I often sleep through the entire night.”

Think of BioWave as a more advanced version of a TENS unit. Electrodes wired to a battery and control unit send two high frequency signals through the skin into deep tissue, where they stimulate blood flow and block pain signals.

Each treatment takes 30 minutes, and the pain relief can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days, depending on the patient and their condition.  

“I started using it several times a day. But as I got feeling better in my back, I dropped it down to once a day. Now it’s once every two or three days,” says Gaston, who takes no pain medication outside of an aspirin. “They saved my life. My quality of life is still not great, but it’s better than what it was.”

BIOWAVE IMAGE

BIOWAVE IMAGE

BioWave has been around for a few years but is not widely known. It was first used by professional sports teams to treat athletes with sprains, tendonitis, muscle pain and other injuries. When it proved effective in treating chronic pain, dozens of pain clinics and VA hospitals started using BioWave devices.

BIOWAVE IMAGE

BIOWAVE IMAGE

“Most of the treatments deal with chronic pain and I would say the majority deal with lumbar and cervical pain. That’s probably the bread and butter for our device, but certainly any extremity pain in the shoulder, elbow, elbow, wrist or ankle. We can really treat almost any location on the body,” says Brad Siff, BioWave’s founder and president.

The company says over 75% of patients respond to BioWave treatment, with a significant improvement in their pain scores, mobility and stiffness. The device can even help patients with complex conditions such as arachnoiditis, a chronic and incurable spinal disease.  

“There’s a handful of anecdotal data that we have where arachnoiditis patients have responded. Similarly, patients with failed back surgery have been treated with BioWave and it helped them," Siff told PNN.

"I’m not saying it reduces their pain 100 percent, but some may get a 30, 40, 50 percent reduction in their pain and it lasts for a long period of time following the treatment."

BioWave is currently available only by prescription, but later this summer the company hopes to get FDA approval for a wearable over-the-counter home unit that can be purchased directly by patients. The final pricing hasn’t been determined, but Siff expects it to be between $300 to $400.

For more information, you can visit BioWave at their website by clicking here or by emailing them at info@biowave.com.

48 Alternative Therapies to Help Lower Pain Levels

By Barby Ingle, Columnist

A year ago, I began this series of columns on alternative therapies for chronic pain management. There are so many different treatments, we presented many of them by letter – the 4 A’s, the 4 C’s, the 4 E’s, etc. This is my final column in the 12-part series.

In all, we covered 48 different treatment options. But we only scratched the surface. There are literally hundreds of alternative pain therapies and I've tried many of them myself. Many didn’t help me or provided only minimal relief. But I know of others who received great benefits from them.

This final month I am spotlighting trigger point injections, virtual reality, yoga and the yucca plant.

Trigger Point Injections

Trigger point injections can be beneficial in treating myofascial pain syndromes. That is when a patient has chronic musculoskeletal pain in specific parts of a muscle where a knot has formed due to inflammation. This is known as the “trigger point.” Steroids or analgesics (or both) are injected into the trigger point area to get the knot to release and the muscle to relax.

I have had trigger point injections done on my wrist and shoulder at various times. Although it was helpful long-term for my wrist injury, which occurred prior to my developing reflex sympathetic dystrophy, it was not as helpful with managing the RSD symptoms in my shoulder.

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I could usually feel the muscle knots under my skin, but that was not always the case. I would also get a twitching response, which my doctor first thought was a sign of low calcium.  But after ruling that out, he realized that it was tight muscle fibers and inflammation.

There are risks with any type of injection. The injection or solution can cause damage to the skin and small nerve fibers, or cause infections and bleeding. If you think that trigger point injections could help, talk with your doctor first to find out if this would be a good option for you.

Virtual Reality

Virtual reality (VR) has been used in different forms of pain management since 1996. It operates under the theory that pain perception can be reduced by refocusing the patient’s attention away from their pain. Typically, that means wearing a headset or goggles that provide a 360-degree view while watching a realistic video or animated game.

AppliedVR in Los Angeles is developing a variety of virtual reality content to help treat pain, depression and anxiety. To give you an idea how it works, watch this promotional video by the company:

VR was first used to alleviate severe pain in patients treated at a burn center in Seattle, Washington. Since then, it has shown to be effective in treating acute pain in hospitals or when patients undergo lengthy testing procedures and need a distraction. I am hearing more and more from providers that VR can help lower the need for medication. 

VR is a fun activity that my husband and I have both tried. We quickly realized that it had therapeutic benefits and helped me to relax and keep my mind focused during long MRI’s and infusions. Like most therapies, the benefits of VR are usually short term. But VR is a promising field that is likely to improve as technology and personalized experiences are brought together in practice. 

Yoga 

Yoga is a mind-body exercise that uses controlled breathing, meditation and movements to stretch and strengthen your body. There are several types of yoga and people have been using yoga moves and thinking for thousands of years. The emphasis for all of them is on treating the mind and body equally.

Yoga can be used for pain relief for many types of chronic conditions, but patients must be cognizant of not pushing themselves into a flare by doing too much at one time. 

One study found that patients with chronic low back pain who took a weekly yoga class increased their mobility more than standard care like physical therapy. Other studies have shown that yoga is comparable to exercise therapy in relieving symptoms from arthritis, fibromyalgia and migraine. 

I have been using yoga in modified positions to strengthen myself. I don’t push myself too hard, because when I did I found myself in a pain flare. But when I go slow and easy, I find that it helps me build strength. For example, I will do the moves in a chair instead of on the floor and skip certain positions that may aggravate my pain. 

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Practicing yoga has also helped with my mood, positive thinking and overall well-being. A typical yoga session lasts 45-90 minutes; mine are shorter, about 15-20 minutes at a time. Many people will go to a yoga class, but I do it at home using routines that I modified. Each session usually begins with deep breathing exercises that help me relax and lower stress levels. Then I use a series of yoga positions that are either seated, standing or laying down. Some positions are done quickly and others are held for a few minutes. If it starts to get too much for me, I stop or take a break.

At the end of the yoga session, I go back to breathing and mediation exercises to cool down. Be sure to modify your yoga to fit your needs. Doing some movement and breathing is better than nothing, even if it’s only a few minutes each day.  

Yucca

The Yucca is a plant with more than 40 species that typically grows in desert regions. It is used to make medicines for many conditions, including migraines, headaches, gastrointestinal disorders, osteoarthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes, vascular constriction, and more. 

Yucca medications are applied directly to the skin, made into extracts, or used in carbonated beverages. Some Yucca compounds have even been used in the manufacture of new medications. 

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I first heard about the use of Yucca derivatives to treat pain while on a tour of the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix, Arizona. That was where I found out that the Yucca can be used to treat sores, bleeding, sprains and joint pain. My husband is almost bald, and they suggested some people even use it for baldness. 

Researchers have found several Yucca compounds that are similar to anti-inflammatory medications.  Some of the chemicals in Yucca can also help reduce blood pressure or control cholesterol levels. For me, it helps reduce osteoarthritis symptoms by lowering the aching pain, swelling and stiffness I deal with. 

The Yucca plant is native to the southwest United States, where I currently live, as well as Mexico. Around here it is common for people to use the bark and root of the Yucca as a dietary supplement to promote joint health. There are even Yucca products on the market for treating pain in horses, dogs and other animals.

Be Open Minded

My alphabet series on alternative pain management is meant to spark ideas and discussion about treatments that you may not have known about before.  Before you try any of them, I encourage and remind you to talk it over first with medical professionals who are familiar with your past and present care. It is important to also remain open minded about your options and only do what you are comfortable with. 

There is no cure yet for chronic pain. So the more proactive we are in managing the symptoms -- even if we don’t get complete relief -- the better off we’ll be. Being positive, hopeful and creative in finding new ways to manage our conditions can help get our pain levels down.  

Want to see the rest my series on alternative treatments?  Here’s where to find them:

  • The 4 A’s: acupressure, acupuncture, aromatherapy and art therapy.  
  • The 4 C’s: Calmare, Chinese medicine, chiropractic, and craniosacral therapy. 
  • The 4 E’s: energy therapy, electromagnetic therapy, equine therapy, and exercise. 
  • The 4 F’s: faith healing, Feldenkrais Method, food, and functional medicine. 
  • The 4 H’s: hypnotherapy, hyperbaric therapy, holistic living and herbal therapy.
  • 4 Infusions: Ketamine, lidocaine, immunogoblins and stem cells.
  • The 4 M’s: Mindfulness, magnets, massage and music.
  • The 4 N’s: Nerve blocks, nitric oxide, neurotransmitter regulation and nabilone.
  • The 4 O’s: oral orthotics, orthomolecular medicine, osteopathy and occupational therapy.
  • The 4 P’s: Physical therapy, pain medications, prolotherapy and psychology. 
  • 2 R's, a Q and an S: Quell, radiofrequency ablation, reflexology, sonopuncture

As I have stressed in all 12 articles, each of us is different, even if we are living with the same diseases. Your task is to find creative, effective ways to get the pain conditions you live with under control. I look forward to reading what worked and didn’t work for you.

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Barby Ingle lives with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), migralepsy and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain FoundationShe is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics.

More information about Barby can be found at her website. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

4 Alternative Therapies That Help Lower Pain Levels

By Barby Ingle, Columnist

This is the 11th month of my series on alternative therapies for chronic pain management. As I have stressed month after month, each of us is different, even if we are living with the same diseases. No one treatment works for everyone. We must find creative and effective ways to get our pain levels lower.

This month I am shining a spotlight on four treatments that may help you or your loved one in chronic pain: Quell, radiofrequency ablations, reflexology and sonopuncture, also known as sound therapy. I have tried all four of these treatments with varying degrees of success.

Quell

Quell is a wearable medical device that uses electric nerve stimulation to deliver relief from chronic pain. I have tried this device and passed it on to some of my friends with back, arthritis, nerve, leg and foot pain. For me, the relief was not as significant as I had hoped, but I have a friend who has used it daily for a year and swears that it helps her leg pain.

NeuroMetrix, the maker of Quell, designed the device to be worn on the upper calf muscle. It was small enough to wear under my sweatpants and not too big or bulky to get in the way. The device sends neural pulses through the central nervous system to the brain to trigger the body’s own pain blockers. It has a variety of stimulation patterns and sleep modes, and the intensity of therapy can be adjusted through an app.

If you have tried a TENS unit or Calmare and gotten some relief, this might be a successful tool to help you manage your pain. A Quell starter kit costs $249. Each unit comes with the device, leg band, two electrodes and charging cords. You have to replace the electrodes about every two weeks with normal use, but the battery is rechargeable.

I believe Quell is an option that is worth looking into and they have a 60-day moneyback guarantee if it doesn’t help you.

image courtesy neurometrix

image courtesy neurometrix

Radiofrequency Ablation

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) uses heat to stop the transmission of pain. Radiofrequency waves “ablate” or burn the nerve that is causing the pain. The nerve stops sending pain signals until it regrows and heals from the ablation. RFA is most commonly used to treat chronic pain caused by arthritis and peripheral nerve pain.

I had RFA procedures 36 times from 2005 to 2008. It never took my pain away but did lower my pain levels and helped take the edge off. The doctor performed them on the ganglion nerve bundle in my neck. My insurance covered the procedures and it was helpful in keeping the need for high dose pain medications down.

RFA procedures are typically done in an outpatient setting under local anesthetics or conscious sedation anesthesia. The procedure is done under guidance imaging, like a CT scan or by ultrasound machine, by an interventional pain specialist.

RFA is said to help in treating the desired nerve without causing significant collateral damage to the tissue around where the ablation is performed. Still, a patient should take precautions and understand that the ablation can cause trauma or injury to the body, and conditions such as CRPS or arachnoiditis can be exacerbated long-term with this treatment.

When I was having RFA, it was one of the only options I had access to. Once less invasive options became available to me, I opted to stop these and nerve blocks all together.

Reflexology

Reflexology involves the application of pressure to the feet and hands with thumb, finger, and hand techniques. Reflexology is very relaxing and calming for me but there is no consensus among reflexologists about how it works, and some technicians are better at it than others.

Practitioners believe that there are specific areas in the hands and feet that correspond with organs in the “zones” of the body. There are five zones on each half of the body that reflexologists work on. In theory, they help stimulate blood flow and better blood flow leads to better working organs and muscles

The research on reflexology is skimpy and it has not been proven as an effective treatment for any medical condition.  It’s more of an approach to health lifestyle living, which can be of benefit to pain patients. This can help lower blood pressure and relax a pained body by taking the edge off.

I can say reflexology did seem to help with my constipation issues, but I was doing it while taking OTC and prescription strength medications, as well as stretching and stomach massages.

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Sonopuncture

Sonopuncture is also known as vibrational or sound therapy. The idea behind it is similar to that of acupuncture, although instead of needles they use sound waves. Sonopuncture practitioners believe that sound waves stimulate the body into healing.

Sonopuncture was recently highlighted on an episode of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” when Kendall Jenner was going through some anxiety challenges. I have used sound therapy myself to help with the stress of living with chronic pain and find it relaxing and mentally therapeutic.

Typically, the patient lays down in a comfortable position on the floor or a massage table. The practitioner will used tools like a tuning fork, glass bowls, chimes, metal or electronic devices that emit harmonic sounds or vibrations on acupressure points for about a minute each.

This is a noninvasive therapy and is suitable for all ages. Since no needles are involved, it could be seen as an alternative to acupuncture. With one in four patients afraid of needles, this could be a great way to calm your nerves and mind to help manage the challenges of living with chronic pain.

If you are considering any of these alternative treatments, I encourage you to first talk with a medical professional who is familiar with your past and present care and can help you discover what would be appropriate for you.

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Barby Ingle lives with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), migralepsy and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain Foundation. She is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics.

More information about Barby can be found at her website. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Wear, Tear & Care: Rating Omron's Avail TENS Unit

By Jennifer Kilgore, Columnist

I don’t use TENS units very often. Since I wear the Quell on a daily basis, it usually seems superfluous -- unless I’m having a very bad day.

Then my TENS unit makes an appearance, wires snaking under my shirt and sticky pads placed wherever I can get them. The power pack is latched to my pants, and the result is that I feel like a moron. Even if there is nobody at home to witness my treatment, I become self-conscious. My cat has an opinion, I’m sure.

That’s why I was excited to try the Omron Avail TENS device. It’s wireless, has two large pads, and can be controlled from my phone. There’s no bulky battery pack to wear on my belt, no wires tangling me, and the pads themselves are larger than the unit I currently have. The coverage of more bodily real estate is always a winner for me.

The Avail TENS is a wearable electrotherapy device that is designed to alleviate chronic muscle and joint pain. It has various pre-programmed settings designed for the shoulder, arm, back or leg; as well as modes that include both TENS and microcurrent, the latter of which applies electrical stimulation that one can hardly feel. The TENS modes are much stronger in sensation.

IMAGE COURTESY OF OMRON

IMAGE COURTESY OF OMRON

I actually didn’t know that microcurrents were used in pain relief -- I thought they only applied to anti-aging treatments at spas. However, this therapy mimics the body’s natural currents, which are believed to restore normal frequencies within cells.

I don’t know how well the microcurrent mode works yet, because I still experienced pain when I tried it.  I imagine it takes some getting used to and that benefits accrue over time. However, the TENS mode works wonderfully, and having such large pads means that I can get more coverage.

Treatment sessions run between 30 and 60 minutes, depending on the mode chosen. You can also set sessions to run indefinitely. To charge the sensors, they must be placed on a special charging box that comes with the device. I’ve managed to use it multiple times now after the initial charge.

IMAGE COURTESY OF OMRON

IMAGE COURTESY OF OMRON

It is very easy to set up and use, as most of it is intuitive for a chronic pain patient. The device must be paired with your smartphone, and the app is fairly straightforward. The only thing that kept happening to me was that the pads would unlink with the app because I kept pressing the power button on the pads by mistake -- for instance, when I leaned back on a couch.

The pads stay on well. The "help” section of the app states I can use them up to 30 times, and replacement pads range from $12.75 to $19.99. I might resort to using athletic tape to keep them on longer, as I do with normal TENS pads. I know that isn’t advised, but I want these pads to last as long as possible.

So far, my only complaint is the slight bulkiness of the pad itself. Having a wireless device means that a sensor must be placed on the pad, which ties it to the app. These blink in orange or green lights, which are even visible from underneath two shirts. Granted, clothing manufacturers have been making clothing thinner and thinner so you are required to buy more clothes, so maybe that’s not Omron’s fault. There’s even a name for this clothing phenomenon: “planned obsolescence.”

Additionally, since my problem areas are on my back, sitting in a chair can be awkward. The pads stick out and rub against the seat, which turned them off once or twice. I don’t think the unit is meant to be worn all day, though, unless one plans to use microcurrents alone. The company only recommends that three TENS treatment sessions be completed on a daily basis.

My overall impression is a good one. I like the device, and I think it works well. It controls my pain when I use the TENS settings. I just wish the sensors on the pads were thinner -- that would help my back-pained compatriots (and me) when leaning back into a chair. That seems like a small complaint for such a device, though.

The Omron Avail is currently on sale for $159.99 (normally retails at $199.99). 

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Jennifer Kain Kilgore is an attorney editor for both Enjuris.com and the Association of International Law Firm Networks. She has chronic back and neck pain after two car accidents.

Jennifer receives products or services mentioned in her reviews for free from the manufacturer. She only mentions those that she uses personally and believes will be good for readers. You can read more about Jennifer on her blog, Wear, Tear, & Care.  

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

The Pros and Cons of Acupuncture

By Pat Anson, Editor

Acupuncture has been an integral part of Chinese medicine for thousands of years, but Western medicine still has trouble deciding whether needle therapy is an effective treatment for chronic pain.

The latest example appears in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), with two opinion pieces written by doctors who sharply disagree about acupuncture’s effectiveness. One doctor with the British Medical Acupuncture Society feels it’s a safe and effective alternative to drugs, while two Danish researchers maintain there is no solid clinical evidence that acupuncture works.

“Doctors should not recommend acupuncture for pain because there is insufficient evidence that it is clinically worth while,” wrote Professors Asbjørn Hróbjartsson, University of Southern Denmark, and Edzard Ernst, University of Exeter. “Overviews of clinical pain trials comparing acupuncture with placebo find a small, clinically irrelevant effect that cannot be distinguished from bias.”

Hróbjartsson and Ernst point out that acupuncture has fallen in and out of favor -- even in China. In the 1700’s acupuncture was considered "irrational and superstitious" and it was latter banned from the Imperial Medical Institute. Not until Mao Tse Tung took over China in 1949 was acupuncture revived as a form of treatment – in part because there were so few doctors in rural areas.

Acupuncture started gaining popularity in the West in the 1970’s, and medical guidelines in many developed countries now recommend it as a treatment for back pain and migraine.

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The UK’s National Health Service spends about $34 million a year paying for acupuncture treatments -- money that Hróbjartsson and Ernst believe would be better spent elsewhere.

“Health services funded by taxpayers should use their limited resources for interventions that have been proved effective,” they wrote. “After decades of research and hundreds of acupuncture pain trials, including thousands of patients, we still have no clear mechanism of action, insufficient evidence for clinically worthwhile benefit, and possible harms. Therefore, doctors should not recommend acupuncture for pain.”

Mike Cummings says there is plenty of evidence that acupuncture works. The medical director of the British Medical Acupuncture Society, Cummings started using acupuncture in his own clinical practice in 1989.

“For those patients who choose it and who respond well, it considerably improves health related quality of life, and it has much lower long term risk for them than non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs,” Cummings wrote. “It may be especially useful for chronic musculoskeletal pain and osteoarthritis in elderly patients, who are at particularly high risk from adverse drug reactions.”

According to Cummings, the main reason there have been few clinical studies of acupuncture is lack of funding.

“Is it all about money? In hospitals, acupuncture seems to incur more staffing and infrastructure costs than drug based interventions, and in an era of budget restriction, cutting services is a popular short term fix,” he wrote. “Another challenge is the lack of commercial sector interest in acupuncture, meaning that it does not benefit from the lobbying seen for patented drugs and devices.”

As many as 3 million Americans receive acupuncture treatments, most often for relief of chronic pain. While there is little consensus in the medical community about acupuncture’s value, a large study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that acupuncture is an effective treatment of chronic pain and "a reasonable referral option.”

Another large study found acupuncture significantly reduced pain severity, when combined with other treatments such as anti-inflammatory drugs.