Health Team

Study: Toothpicks can relieve back pain

Posted May 15, 2009 3:42 p.m. EDT
Updated May 18, 2009 6:38 p.m. EDT

A new study shows that using toothpicks, instead of needles, during acupuncture can help the Americans who spend $37 billion a year to relieve back pain.

Robert Tillus injured his neck and back in a snowboarding accident. Traditional treatments didn't relieve his pain, so he turned to acupuncture.

"It gradually improves each week," Tillus said.

Research shows that acupuncture can be more effective than conventional medicine for easing back pain. A new study found that even a toned-down version of acupuncture works, too.

Study participants were divided into two groups. One had acupuncture with needles, as it is usually performed. The other group was told they were getting acupuncture, but instead, doctors faked the treatment by poking them with toothpicks.

Both group saw their back pain decrease.

There are likely many reasons why, said Richard Firshein, D.O., a certified acupuncturist and director of the Firshein Center for Comprehensive Medicine in New York City.

One, the toothpick-poking acupuncture might produce the same physiological response that relieves back pain that is produced by normal acupuncture, Firshein said.

"During those treatments, you may actually be activating areas that increase the body's ability to reduce pain," he said.

As yoga and massage do, acupuncture, too, might help people reduce stress.

The similar results could also be the result of a placebo effect. In that phenomena, people believe that a treatment is working, and the body responds accordingly, as if it is really receiving that treatment.

"It could be all of the above," Firshein said.

Whatever the reason, Tillus said that acupuncture works for him.

"It's easy, painless, relaxing," he said.