This news release describes the outcome of a study on two alternative therapies — acupuncture, a form of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that involves placing thin needles in specific points of the body, and the Alexander Technique, which teaches people how to improve their posture and movement habits in an effort to release tension and reduce pain.
The news release does a good job of reporting relevant facts from the published study. It demonstrates a good grasp of the quality of evidence in the study. A major stumble is the lack of concrete numbers that could have given the interested reader the scope of the potential benefits of the two therapies discussed. The release also doesn’t make it clear what’s new and different about the study compared with previous research, or what these therapies cost.
Chronic neck pain is a leading cause of disability. People suffering from this condition often seek complementary therapies to manage their condition. This news release reports on a study examining the long-term effects of two particular complementary health care strategies for chronic neck pain — acupuncture and the Alexander Technique.
Other complementary or alternative therapies have been shown to offer short-term pain relief that does not lead to longer-term relief. The length of time of relief reported here (one year) is what makes the study important.
The news release does not mention the costs of either acupuncture or the Alexander Technique. This is important to include since both therapies probably require the patient to pay out of pocket, at least in the United States. A quick web search found that the median cost of an acupuncture session nationwide is $100. Alexander Technique sessions cost about the same as massage therapy — around $70 to $100 per 45-minute session. In this study, 12 acupuncture sessions and 20 Alexander Technique sessions were required.
The release states that both acupuncture and the Alexander Technique led to a significant reduction in neck pain at 12 months, as determined by the Northwick Park Questionnaire (NPQ). Statistical significance does not, however, necessarily indicate strong treatment effects. For instance, with enough data in hand, we can discover that minute differences between treatment and control can have very significant p-values (calculated probability), although we are not claiming this is the case here. From the original study, we learn the treatment effects of 3.92% reduction in NPQ versus usual care for acupuncture, and 3.79% for the Alexander Technique.
Even with these numbers, the information is still lacking in interpretability. What does a 3-4% reduction in NPQ score really mean? Is the benefit worth the number of sessions of each therapy?
The release doesn’t mention the possible harms of each intervention. While these methods are generally considered safe, no treatment is without risk of harm so we would like to see some discussion. The risks associated with acupuncture generally rest with the acupuncturist and can include soreness, infection, and in rare cases, organ injury if the needle is pushed in too far. Because the Alexander Technique calls for changes to posture and movement, it may cause harms to people with specific spinal injuries that are better left treated by licensed medical experts.
There is a good grasp of the quality of evidence. The article specifies the patient population for whom the treatments can be expected to help, namely people with chronic, non-specific neck pain. The news release also points out importantly that both interventions enjoyed a high rate of adherence.
Two additions would’ve furthered the satisfaction of this criterion. First, the news release might have mentioned the limitations of the study outlined in the original article, namely, practitioners of each technique belonged to their respective main U.K.-based professional associations. This hinders the generalization of the findings since both procedures are somewhat subjective and can vary more greatly from practitioner to practitioner than a “standard” treatment requiring clinical approval. Second, the impressive sample size of the randomized controlled trial should’ve been reported. More than 500 volunteers took part.
There is no disease-mongering here about chronic neck pain.
The news release does not disclose funding sources for the study. In addition, the study was more transparent than the release in disclosing potential conflicts of interest. Two of the authors of the original study, Drs. Woodman and Ballard, are both on the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique and contributed toward obtaining funding for the study. Coincidentally, all practitioners recruited in the study for the Alexander Technique came from the same society. The fact that the study authors and practitioners were all closely allied with the Alexander Technique was worth disclosing to readers, especially journalists, who were relying on the release.
The goal of the news release is in fact to accomplish this very criterion. The release accurately states, “Usual care for neck pain generally consists of prescribed medications and visits to physical therapists and other health care professionals.”
It’s clear from the release that both of these therapies are widely available.
What’s novel about this study is the longer term relief gained from the therapies. The study points this out, but the release doesn’t explicitly mention it.
The release maintains an objective, scientific voice throughout the piece.