An alternative medical procedure developed in ancient China could soon find its way into emergency rooms as a long-term relief for patients.

Researchers from the RMIT University in Australia have found that acupuncture, a component of traditional Chinese medicine, could provide relief for ER patients suffering from considerable pain.

However, while the procedure was able to relieve people's pain, in the long run, its effects weren't as immediate as scientists had hoped for.

What Is Acupuncture?

The origins of acupuncture can be traced in China some 3,000 years ago. Practitioners believed that they can improve bodily functions and promote natural self-healing by stimulating specific parts of the body known as acupuncture points. This can be done by inserting fine, sterile needles into the patient's skin. Sometimes pressure, heat, or even electrical stimulation is used to enhance this effect.

Acupuncture's popularity in the United States grew in 1997 when the National Institutes of Health recorded and publicized the safety and efficacy of the procedure to treat various medical conditions.

Professor Marc Cohen, from the School of Health and Biomedical Sciences at RMIT, explained that while many practitioners used acupuncture to treat pain in community settings, the procedure is rarely used by doctors in emergency departments.

He said that nurses and doctors in such emergency settings need to have a variety of pain-relieving options for their patients given the risk of using opioids such as morphine. Opioids have been shown to have addictive properties, especially when used for long-term treatment.

Cohen pointed out that people who come to emergency often claim of suffering from considerable pain. However, this was often inadequately managed by care providers. This limitation is what inspired the researchers to look for alternative forms of pain relief for patients.

Acupuncture As Long-Term Pain Relief

In a study featured in the Medical Journal of Australia, Cohen and his team examined data from 528 emergency patients from four Australian hospitals between January 2010 and December 2011. The patients suffered from various forms of body pain such as acute low back pain, migraine or ankle sprains.

The researchers used a 10-point scale to determine the level of pain that the patients claim to have been suffering. Patients who said their pain levels were at least 4 on the scale were randomly given either acupuncture alone, acupuncture along with drug therapy, or drug therapy alone.

After receiving treatment for an hour, about 80 percent of the patients in all three treatment groups said they still had pain levels of at least 4, while less than 40 percent of them said they experienced a significant reduction in their pain levels.

However, after 48 hours, 82.8 percent of participants who received acupuncture treatment alone said they would probably or definitely seek the same procedure again, while 80.8 percent of those in the combined group said that they would repeat their treatment. About 78.2 percent of patients who received the drug therapy alone said they would seek the treatment again.

"Our study has shown acupuncture is a viable alternative, and would be especially beneficial for patients who are unable to take standard pain-relieving drugs because of other medical conditions," Cohen said.

"But it's clear we need more research overall to develop better medical approaches to pain management, as the study also showed patients initially remained in some pain, no matter what treatment they received."

Cohen added that some emergency departments in Australian hospitals offer acupuncture treatment. However, more studies are needed to determine how pain management can be improved overall in such settings, and how acupuncture can help carry this out.

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