Chronic back pain is the most frequent reason that people seek out acupuncture, especially when other treatment methods have not helped. Acupuncture is extremely effective at helping with all kinds of back pain—low-back pain, mid-back pain, upper-back and neck pain, all can be helped by acupuncture. I will state here again as I have in my new book Does It Hurt? A Dialog to Help You Understand and Trust Acupuncture that acupuncture should be utilized as a first choice to treat back pain (and many other health issues), not solely as a last resort.
A recent study has dramatically highlighted this point. This study examined the prescription frequency for opiate pain medications based on the type of care first received for back pain. Patients who visited a licensed acupuncturist first were 91% less likely to ever take an opiate drug for the condition than those seeing a modern medical doctor first. This study emphasizes two points:
- Acupuncture is very effective in treating back pain.
- Acupuncture should be the treatment of first choice for back pain, not a last resort.
As an acupuncturist I have treated both acute and chronic back pain. Acute issues—those that are less than 12 weeks old like back spasms, sudden-onset acute pain, and pain from sports or other injuries—can often be helped very quickly. Chronic pain of more than 12 weeks duration often takes longer to improve, depending on the nature of the pain and the length of time it has been present. I have seen patients with a diagnosis of “bone-on-bone” osteoarthritis in their spine and other joints improve dramatically over several months of treatment.
As I have described in Chapter 4 of Does It Hurt?, acupuncture works with your body’s energy or chi—that unseen, unmeasurable part of us that animates our lives and bodies. Modern medicine, with its focus on analyzing us through the lens of material/measurable science, has its limitations in assessing pain. In this system any sensation or perception of pain must be associated with the nervous system. I know it is hard to accept that this is not the case, but the very real and clear improvement from acupuncture validates that the energy channels of acupuncture are indeed real.
What causes pain?
Included in the organizational models of acupuncture and Chinese medicine are the energy channels that traverse our entire body. The lines on acupuncture charts, called meridians, are representations of these channels of energy. The source of pain in this model is a lack of energy flow in these channels caused by blockage of them. Restore the flow and the pain is no longer present. The reality of this concept is quite real even though these channels are completely invisible, with no physical structure to describe them. Feeling things, such as pain, is not simply a function of our nerves; this way of thinking is a limitation of the organizational models of modern medicine, anatomy, physiology and biology. Rather, we feel with our energy—with the channels—and if they do not circulate freely we feel pain.
There are many triggers that can cause our energy to stagnate. Trauma to an area such as a blow to your leg or fall on your hip can interrupt energy circulation locally. Stress can create an internal condition called liver chi stagnation. Chinese medical theory tells us our liver is responsible for the free flow of energy in all of our channels, and when it is negatively impacted through stress, can create global energy stagnation causing physical pain, especially back pain. Inflammation in your abdomen, for example from a food diet full of sugar, dairy, and grains, can cause stagnation in the channels around the abdomen including the back. Unexpressed emotions can be stored in our protective channels in the limbs and joints and can stagnate energy flow in the channels of those regions. And finally, sitting for long periods of time is especially effective in stagnating the energy flow in the low back.
Acupuncture’s Individual Approach to Treating Back Pain
One reason that acupuncture is so effective in treating back pain is that it treats each individual as a unique case, different from any other. Acupuncturists use differential diagnosis to determine the underlying cause of your back pain, like those mentioned above, and address that cause as well as your symptoms. As we see with modern medicine, treating every case the same produces very poor results and also leads to other undesirable problems like the current opioid addiction crisis.
The next time you experience back pain of any kind, call a licensed acupuncturist first. Even when you feel like “it is structural” and “that’s what chiropractors work on,” realize that the energy channels dictate everything in our bodies. That’s why acupuncture can affect and correct musculoskeletal issues like back pain, as well as a wide range of functional medical problems.
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