Pregnant women suffering from the all-too-common problem of back pain may find relief in a treatment that is thousands of years old, if a study conducted by a professor at the Yale School of Medicine proves successful.
The study, led by Dr. Shu-Ming Wang, an anesthesiology professor at the medical school, will observe the effects of acupuncture in at least 150 pregnant women and will be conducted over three years with a $400,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health.
Wang said she initiated the study when her pregnant friend, suffering from back pain, approached her.
“One of my colleagues was pregnant and suffered low back pain during pregnancy,” Wang said. “I happened to be learning acupuncture at that time, and she needed help. She let me put a needle in her ear and her pain went away.”
According to Wang’s research, the problem of back pain is widespread in pregnant women. In her survey of 1,000 women in New Haven County, 65 percent complained of lower back pain.
Acupuncture is an alternative medicine technique in which practitioners use metal needles to stimulate certain points on the body. Wang said her treatment will consist of inserting three small needles on the side of the ear for one week.
“The goal of the study is to see if we have any kind of impact on the intensity and duration of the lower back pain,” said Dr. James Yue, an orthopedic surgery professor at the medical school and one of Wang’s co-researchers.
Wang and Yue said that acupuncture provides an attractive alternative to taking medications and that no standard medical treatment exists to address this type of pain. Yue said standard medical procedures have increasingly become viewed as risky during pregnancy.
“Obstetricians don’t let women get MRIs anymore, so there are no imaging or diagnostic tools that we can use,” he said.
Wang said that her study will focus on women who are 24-weeks pregnant and with a specific type of back pain to increase the study’s accuracy.
No evidence has yet confirmed the positive effects of acupuncture, said Dr. Randy Gollub, assistant director of psychiatric neuroimaging at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“It’s been very difficult to show the efficacy of acupuncture studies because of their lack of controls,” she said.
Without a controlled study, in which one group receives the treatment and one receives a placebo alternative, Gollub said it is impossible to determine whether improvements are due to the treatment or to psychological effects.
Despite disagreement among doctors over the effectiveness of the procedure, Wang and Yue said that acupuncture has been accepted in the general public for a long time.
Yue said it is unusual for the government to fund a clinical study of acupuncture’s effects.
“There’s been no other study like this done before, so it’s kind of unique,” he said. “To get an NIH grant for this study is quite significant.”
Dr. Brian Berman, director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland, has investigated the acceptance of acupuncture and said that doctors’ acceptance of the procedure is increasing.
“In national and international surveys we conducted of rheumatologists and pain management specialists, over 50 percent of doctors believed acupuncture to be a legitimate medical therapy and have referred patients for acupuncture treatment,” he wrote in an e-mail. “We found similarly high acceptance of acupuncture among family practice physicians in earlier surveys.”
Yue said he hopes that, despite the controversy over acupuncture, studies such as Wang’s will encourage further investigation into acupuncture in the United States.
“A lot of the controversy comes from the East-meets-West theory of medicine,” Yue said. “There’s been a change in the thought process on a basic level here in the States. So this is a seminal step in a lot of directions.”
Wang’s other co-investigators include Drs. Michael Berman, Ferne Braveman, Zeev Kain, and Haiqun Lin.