Because back pain is extremely common — 80 percent of the population experiences back pain at some point — it is one of the primary reasons that patients seek medical treatment. While there are a great many treatments touted as beneficial in relieving back pain, from oral medications to injections, physical therapy and surgical procedures, acupuncture is one method of treatment with a good track record as an effective treatment tool. As a matter of fact, back pain is the number one reason patients seek out acupuncture.
While there is evidence that patients also experience relief from “sham” acupuncture, obviously a placebo effect, a recent review of 22 acupuncture studies demonstrated that acupuncture is more effective in providing short-term relief from chronic back pain than standard treatment. The American Pain Society and American College of Physicians recommend that doctors consider acupuncture as a productive alternative therapy for patients with chronic low-back pain that is not alleviated by more conventional treatment.
How does acupuncture work?
Acupuncture involves the insertion of very thin needles at designated points on the body. According to traditional Chinese medicine, the body contains more than 2,000 of these points, connected by meridians, or pathways, through which life energy flows. For 2500 years, stimulating these points has been used to correct the flow of this energy, known as QI (“chee”) through the body, helping to relieve pain and improve health.
Western medicine, which comes late accepting the use of acupuncture as a valid form of treatment, has offered its own explanations for why this therapy works, including that acupuncture:
- Stimulates the central nervous system, triggering the release of endorphins
- Speeds the relay of electromagnetic signals, releasing immune system cells
- Triggers the release of natural opioids that act as analgesics
- Changes brain chemistry by altering the release of neurotransmitters and neurohormones
Up to 20 metallic FDA-approved needles are used during an acupuncture treatment. Practitioners may place them just into the surface of the skin or up to several inches deep into deeper muscle or fat layers, depending upon what they intend to accomplish. At times, needles may be inserted and turned in one direction or the other, left in for only 10 seconds or for as long as 15 to 20 minutes. While the idea of being “human pin cushion” may be distressing to contemplate, the needles used during acupuncture are 20 times thinner than typical hypodermic needle and are also solid, not removing any tissue when they are withdrawn.
Advantages of Acupuncture over Other Treatments for Back Pain
There are many practical reasons to try acupuncture therapy for back pain. These include:
- Acupuncture is painless — many patients fall asleep while the needles are in place
- Acupuncture doesn’t carry the risks of other, more invasive surgical procedures
- In the U.S., only sterile one-time use needles (sealed prior to use) are used for acupuncture
- The treatment sessions do not take long
- Many patients are helped by acupuncture who haven’t been helped by other therapies
When looking for an alternative approach to treat chronic back pain, it is very important to seek out professionals who are not only well-trained in the discipline but sensitive to the particular needs of their patients.