Chronic neck pain is a common condition in the adult population. As well as being painful and disabling, it is associated with significant costs to the individual, their families, the NHS and society in general. As more research into the effectiveness of interventions is needed, Arthritis Research UK funded the £720,000 ATLAS trial evaluating Alexander Technique and acupuncture for chronic neck pain. The results of this trial have now been published in the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine. This large-scale investigation found that the use of Alexander Technique or acupuncture can significantly relieve chronic neck pain.
The study recruited 517 patients from GP practices in Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield and York. Participants were randomly placed in three groups: one group was offered up to 20 half-hour lessons with teachers from the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique plus usual care; another received up to 12 sessions of 50 minutes of acupuncture based on traditional Chinese medical theory with practitioners of the British Acupuncture Council plus usual care; and the third and final group received usual care alone. The interventions were delivered within the first four to five months. In all three groups, usual care over the 12 months included prescribed medication and visits to GPs, physiotherapists and other healthcare professionals.
The research showed that at 12 months, pain was reduced by 32 per cent for those receiving acupuncture and 31 per cent for those undertaking Alexander Technique lessons, where 25 per cent is a clinically relevant reduction. When comparing Alexander lessons or acupuncture with usual care alone, these reductions were found to be statistically significant. Moreover, patients in these two groups were found to be better able to cope or reduce their pain levels without resorting to medication.
Dr Hugh MacPherson, Principal Investigator on the trial, said: “Our key finding is that there are significant reductions in neck pain associated with Alexander Technique lessons and acupuncture at 12 months. This is an important finding because for the first time we now have clear evidence that these two interventions provide longer-term benefits for chronic neck pain.”
The economic outcomes of the trial are expected to be published in 2016. A small number of patients have taken part in in-depth interviews on their perceptions and experiences of Alexander Technique sessions, acupuncture and usual GP care. Results of this sub-study will also be published in 2016.
The trial is registered at ISRCTN (ISRCTN15186354).