Chronic back pain is the sort of condition that’s almost impossible to ignore.
One day it feels like a dull, nagging ache. The next it’s sharp — darting from one part of your back to another. Other days the pain might feel tight — like two fists are lodged in the middle of your back.
What’s worse — when it’s a painful combination of all three.
When back pain becomes unbearable — and interventions like physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medications or heat packs aren’t working — many people turn to acupuncture.
How Does Acupuncture Work?
Acupuncture involves inserting hair-thin needles at points in the body called meridians to achieve something the Chinese call qi (pronounced “chee”).
To understand qi, think about the body as a series of flowing, intersecting rivers. Tension or pain in the body is bit like erecting a dam and blocking the water flow.
The basic premise of acupuncture is that by placing tiny needles along the body’s meridians you can restore energy flow in the body (kind of like removing the dams to keep those rivers flowing). Years ago this notion of keeping energy in the body balanced for health or pain relief was a — well — foreign concept.
Much of who we refer to as western medicine practitioners (traditional medicine doctors) dismissed the practice, primarily because it was not well-studied.
Today acupuncture — which is considered an alternative medicine practice — is becoming more integrated into traditional medicine. In fact, many insurance policies now cover acupuncture for various health conditions, including chronic back pain.
Because studies, particularly the ones looking at acupuncture for back pain, are revealing some benefits.
Some Reasons To Try Acupuncture For Back Pain
Each year around 3 million people undergo acupuncture treatment. Sometimes acupuncture alone is sufficient to address back pain — more often it is used in combination with other non-drug treatments like exercise, massage or physical therapy.
There are a few reasons you may want to try acupuncture for back pain:
1. Acupuncture may be better than non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications when it comes to treating low back pain, according to a 2013 review in The Clinical Journal of Pain.
2. A 2012 review in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that acupuncture is an effective pain reliever for back and neck pain, osteoarthritis and chronic headache.
3. A 2008 study in the journal Spine found strong evidence that acupuncture works in the short term to relieve low back pain, especially when used alongside standard care options.
4. Studies also indicate acupuncture may be effective for several back pain-related conditions including:
Depression: Depression and back pain tend to go hand in hand. In a study, electroacupuncture (acupuncture needles that deliver a mild electrical current) had certain advantages over fluoxetine (Prozac) for treating depression.
5. Stress and anxiety: Studies in humans suggest acupuncture lowers anxiety while animal studies suggest it balances hormones — including those that contribute to stress.
6. Increased blood circulation: A study published in 2012 showed that seconds after acupuncture needles are inserted blood flow in the body increases.
7. Improved sleep: A review of sleep studies indicates that acupuncture alone helps improve sleep — and acupuncture is as good as prescribed sleep meds for improving sleep. The kicker: Pairing the two was better for sleep duration than using sleep meds alone.
So on its face acupuncture seems like a pretty effective treatment. But before you dive in you should understand there are caveats to all this.
It is not yet clear why acupuncture is effective for some people. And until a verifiable and reproducible mechanism for the pain relief is determined there is bound to be a lot of skepticism around this treatment.
Another issue is that, in several studies using a sham treatment (acupuncture needles with blunted tips), patients reported levels of pain relief that were about the same as those receiving the real treatment.
That suggests to skeptics that pain relief from acupuncture may be more the result of a placebo effect than something truly physiological.
The debate about acupuncture is likely to rage for years. In the meantime what should patients do?
My advice is if you have exhausted other potential treatments for your pain — and you find a reputable licensed practitioner — why not try it? It’s generally safe, and if after a few sessions you feel better, that’s all that matters.
Are you facing back pain? Contact us, online or give us a call 323-319-2897 and we will be happy to help.