Auricular acupuncture also appears to have a wider good-health impact on patients.
Details were presented to the prestigious North American Conference on Complementary and Integrative Medicine by Professor Suzanne McDonough, Dr Siobhan McCann and Ms Ruth Hunter from the Schools of Health Sciences and Psychology at Ulster.
They said small acupuncture needles in the ear are potentially a very cost effective and innovative approach that could be easily combined with other treatments such as exercise.
Professor McDonough said: “The main findings from this study are that a combined approach – acupuncture and supervised exercise classes – improves the management of low back pain more than exercise classes alone.
“These results are very timely, given the recent publication of National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines.
“NICE is recommending a course of acupuncture or supervised exercise classes (as tested in the Ulster trial) for people with low back pain. However, more work needs to be done on how these treatments might be combined in large scale studies in an NHS setting.”
Dr McCann said the results produced evidence of well-being effects generally.
“The participants reported that the programme had a range of psychological as well as physical benefits and the treatment had, for many, a huge impact on their quality of life.”
The conference organisers received more than 1,000 research submissions. Of those selected for delivery, just 12% came from outside North America.
In their presentations, Professor McDonough and Miss Ruth Hunter, who is a PhD student, discussed how the project was developed and its key research findings, while Dr Siobhan McCann focused on the participants’ experiences of receiving acupuncture and exercise.
Auricular acupuncture is commonly used in the treatment of people with substance misuse to reduce cravings and other withdrawal symptoms. A recent and largely untested development has been the use of needles in the ear for treating painful conditions.
It is considered a microsystem of acupuncture and was developed in France after World War II by Dr Paul Nogier, who proposed that a relationship exists between different anatomic areas of the body and specific points on the ear.
The preliminary research study, which is part of an ongoing research programme at Ulster, was funded by the Public Health Agency for Northern Ireland through its Research and Development Office.