The authors conducted this systematic review to examine the entirety of evidence relating to the effectiveness of acupuncture for non-specific chronic low back pain (NSCLBP). Acupuncture has become a popular alternative for treating clinical symptoms of NSCLBP. A number of RCTs have studied the effectiveness of acupuncture in the treatment of NSCLBP. They conducted a systematic literature search without date or language restrictions up to May 2012. Studies included in the review were RCTs that examined all forms of acupuncture that adhered to the Traditional Acupuncture Theory for treating NSCLBP. Outcome measures included impairment, activity limitation and participation restriction. The methodological quality of the studies was examined using the Cochrane risk of bias tool. They included 32 studies in the SR, of which twenty-five studies presented relevant data for the MA. Acupuncture had a clinically meaningful reduction in levels of self-reported pain [MD = -16.76 (95% CI -33.33, -0.19), p = 0.05, I = 90%] when compared to sham, and improved function [SMD = -0.94 (95% CI -1.41, -0.47), p<0.00, I = 78%] when compared to no treatment immediately post-intervention. Levels of function also clinically improved when acupuncture in-addition to usual-care, or electro-acupuncture was compared to usual-care alone. When acupuncture was compared to medications (NSAIDS, muscle relaxants and analgesics) and usual-care, there were statistically significant differences between the control and the intervention groups but these differences were too small to be of any clinical significance. There was no evidence suggesting that acupuncture was superior to transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation.
The authors concluded that this SR demonstrated that acupuncture could have a beneficial effect on self-reported pain and functional limitations on NSCLBP. However, the results should be interpreted in the context of the limitations identified, particularly in relation to the heterogeneity in the study characteristics and the low methodological quality in many of the studies examined.