Objectives: This study aimed to assess analgesia provided by acupuncture, alone or in combination with pharmacotherapy, to patients presenting to emergency departments with acute low back pain, migraine or ankle sprain.
Design: A pragmatic, multicentre, randomised, assessor-blinded, equivalence and non-inferiority trial of analgesia, comparing acupuncture alone, acupuncture plus pharmacotherapy, and pharmacotherapy alone for alleviating pain in the emergency department.
Setting, participants: Patients presenting to emergency departments in one of four tertiary hospitals in Melbourne with acute low back pain, migraine, or ankle sprain, and with a pain score on a 10-point verbal numerical rating scale (VNRS) of at least 4.
Main outcome measures: The primary outcome measure was pain at one hour (T1). Clinically relevant pain relief was defined as achieving a VNRS score below 4, and statistically relevant pain relief as a reduction in VNRS score of greater than 2 units.
Results: 1964 patients were assessed between January 2010 and December 2011; 528 patients with acute low back pain (270 patients), migraine (92) or ankle sprain (166) were randomised to acupuncture alone (177 patients), acupuncture plus pharmacotherapy (178) or pharmacotherapy alone (173). Equivalence and non-inferiority of treatment groups was found overall and for the low back pain and ankle sprain groups in both intention-to-treat and per protocol (PP) analyses, except in the PP equivalence testing of the ankle sprain group. 15.6% of patients had clinically relevant pain relief and 36.9% had statistically relevant pain relief at T1; there were no between-group differences.
Conclusion: The effectiveness of acupuncture in providing acute analgesia for patients with back pain and ankle sprain was comparable with that of pharmacotherapy. Acupuncture is a safe and acceptable form of analgesia, but none of the examined therapies provided optimal acute analgesia. More effective options are needed.
Trial registration: Australian New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry, ACTRN12609000989246.