The aim of this study was to evaluate clinical effectiveness of Alexander Technique lessons or acupuncture versus usual care for persons with chronic, nonspecific neck pain.
Patients with neck pain lasting at least 3 months, a score of at least 28% on the Northwick Park Questionnaire (NPQ) for neck pain and associated disability, and no serious underlying pathology were randomised to receive 12 acupuncture sessions or 20 one-to-one Alexander lessons (both 600 minutes total) plus usual care versus usual care alone. The NPQ score at 0, 3, 6, and 12 months (primary end point) and Chronic Pain Self-Efficacy Scale score, quality of life, and adverse events (secondary outcomes) served as outcome measures. 517 patients were recruited. Their median duration of neck pain was 6 years. Mean attendance was 10 acupuncture sessions and 14 Alexander lessons. Between-group reductions in NPQ score at 12 months versus usual care were 3.92 percentage points for acupuncture (95% CI, 0.97 to 6.87 percentage points) (P = 0.009) and 3.79 percentage points for Alexander lessons (CI, 0.91 to 6.66 percentage points) (P = 0.010). The 12-month reductions in NPQ score from baseline were 32% for acupuncture and 31% for Alexander lessons. Participant self-efficacy improved for both interventions versus usual care at 6 months (P < 0.001) and was significantly associated (P < 0.001) with 12-month NPQ score reductions (acupuncture, 3.34 percentage points [CI, 2.31 to 4.38 percentage points]; Alexander lessons, 3.33 percentage points [CI, 2.22 to 4.44 percentage points]). No reported serious adverse events were considered probably or definitely related to either intervention.
The authors drew the following conclusions: acupuncture sessions and Alexander Technique lessons both led to significant reductions in neck pain and associated disability compared with usual care at 12 months. Enhanced self-efficacy may partially explain why longer-term benefits were sustained.
Where to begin? There is much to be criticised about this study!
For starters, the conclusions are factually wrong. They should read “acupuncture sessions plus usual care and Alexander Technique lessons plus usual care both led to significant reductions in neck pain and associated disability compared with usual care at 12 months. Enhanced self-efficacy may partially explain why longer-term benefits were sustained.
On this blog, we have repeatedly discussed the ‘A+B versus B’ study design and the fact that it cannot provide information about cause and effect because it fails to control for placebo effects and the extra attention, time and empathy (for instance here and here). I suspect that this is the reason why it is so very popular in alternative medicine. It can make ineffective therapies appear to be effective.
Another point is a more clinical concern. Neck pain is not a disease, it is a symptom. In medicine we should, whenever possible, try to treat the cause of the underlying condition and not the symptom. Acupuncture is at best a symptomatic treatment. Usual care is often not very effective because we normally fail to see the cause of neck pain. In my view, alternative treatments should either be tested against placebo or sham interventions or against optimal care.
What is optimal care for nonspecific neck pain? As its causes are often unclear and usually multifactorial, the optimal treatment needs to be multifactorial (one could also call it holistic) as well. The causes often range from poor ergometric conditions at work to muscular tension, stress, psychological problems etc. Thus optimal care would be a team work tailor-made for each patient possibly including physiotherapists, pain specialists, clinical psychologists, orthopaedic surgeons etc.
My points here are:
- neither acupuncture nor Alexander technique take account of this complexity,
- they claim to be holistic but, in fact, this turns out to be merely a good sales-slogan,
- usual care is usually no good,
- if pragmatic trials using the ‘A+B versus B’ design make any sense at all, they should employ not usual care but optimal care for the control group.
In the end, we are left with a study that looks fairly rigorous at first sight, but that really tells us next to nothing (except that dedicating 600 minutes to patients in pain is not without effect). I am truly surprised that a top journal like the Annals of Internal Medicine decided to publish it.