Acupuncture isn’t an uncommon method of treatment anymore. Around 10 million Americans a year schedule acupuncture sessions, and there’s a rising trend of using it as a minimally invasive alternative to medical treatment.
Will acupuncture ease lower back pain? So far, studies show that it has a tangible positive effect on people who are suffering from back pain. The important thing to remember here is that it’s crucial to find a trained acupuncturist.
There’s a lot of skepticism surrounding acupuncture since it has its roots in traditional Chinese medicine rather than Western medical treatments. On the surface, there seems to be nothing supporting its efficacy aside from the fact that it’s been around for a long time. And while it’s been hailed as one of the better choices in complementary and alternative medicine, the procedure itself can be very intimidating to people who aren’t familiar with it.
However, there is some evidence that supports acupuncture’s efficacy in treating a variety of medical conditions. Acupuncture has shown limited success with dealing with issues like osteoarthritis, migraines, insomnia, and even some cases of PMS and period cramps.
But one of the most common concerns addressed with acupuncture is chronic pain, especially pain around the neck, shoulders, arms, legs, and back. While the foundational philosophy of acupuncture might be a little harder to take at face value like energy balancing and qi, there is some well-established research about the actual medical benefits it provides.
But how does acupuncture help with back pain, specifically?
Acupuncture helps relieve back pain by targeting the pressure points at the back of the body. Needles are inserted at various points, which roughly correspond to the “energy centers” or meridians that affect body function. There are some specific meridians that acupuncture can use to affect the lower back, including but not limited to:
The needles are inserted in specific nerve clusters around these areas, which are thought to help relieve tension, pressure, and overall pain in the lower back. It’s important to note that acupuncture has different meridians for pain on other parts of the body. Each needle is pinpointed to a specific area, which means more localized treatment.
But how does sticking needles in your body help with lower back pain? There are three major theories how this helps:
One way that acupuncture can help relieve pain is by stimulating the different hormones that get activated when the body detects needle entry. By sticking the needles in the correct areas, your acupuncturist can encourage the production of hormones that help regulate the functions of your nerve endings.
By affecting the nerve endings, acupuncture can effectively trick the body into shutting off areas so that the patient doesn’t feel any pain. It’s important to note that this treatment is temporary since neurotransmitters regrow when given enough time. However, regular applications of acupuncture can help the body condition itself to ignore or numb the pain.
The body responds to pain in varying degrees. Because the needles used for acupuncture aren’t serious enough to merit a full-on nervous response from your body, they’re thought to influence the nervous system in other ways. One theory is that the trigger points or meridians used in acupuncture actually help stimulate the nervous system by activating its response in a way that helps manage the pain.
Acupuncture may influence your brain by having it react to the specific trigger points each time a needle is inserted, so your nervous system either compensates or focuses on that point rather than the site that’s causing you active pain. Again, these effects are only temporary, but it’s possible to find relative short-term pain relief with repeated sessions.
Finally, acupuncture may also stimulate the centers of your body that release pain-relieving chemicals whenever it’s been injured. Normally, these chemicals are only released during active or severe trauma, so they’re not activated for chronic pain. But with the widespread effects of needles over a large area of the body, it’s more likely to respond by releasing these natural pain relievers.
While these pain relievers aren’t as strong as opioids like morphine, their compatibility with your body means that you can effectively condition their release with regular acupuncture sessions. However, it also runs into the same issue that while it’s excellent at managing pain, it may be less effective for overall pain relief long-term.
Even if the exact mechanics of acupuncture are not entirely understood, studies conducted on its effects on people with chronic pain are very promising. While it may not a primary method of treatment, there is sufficient evidence available for patients to at least consider acupuncture as an alternative way of pain management.
Despite its benefits, there are some considerations that you need to keep in mind if you’re thinking about getting acupuncture.
Acupuncture doesn’t work on a single-use basis like injections or some medications. The best way to get the most out of acupuncture is to schedule regular sessions. This may not be an issue for people who have the time or the money to visit an acupuncturist, but it can be a limiting factor for others who don’t have that kind of access.
The benefits also don’t stay for long. Because the body can heal itself, the changes made by the needles need to be reapplied for results to stick. Further complicating this is that the benefits of long-term acupuncture have not been fully studied yet, so there’s the possibility that there are other side effects that may arise from long-term use.
One of the more persistent risks with acupuncture is the possibility of going through sham acupuncturists. Sham acupuncture is basically acupuncture performed by someone who isn’t trained or licensed – usually by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). If you’re going to an acupuncturist, make sure that they have their proper qualifications before agreeing to any session with them.
The most important reason as to why you should do this is because acupuncture has considerable risks when performed by someone who isn’t trained. Some problems and complications include nerve damage, excessive bleeding, puncture of internal organs, and overall pain and discomfort. A trained acupuncturist will know what sites needles can be inserted safely, and can also advise aftercare when the session is done.
Acupuncture is typically not seen as a medical expense by many insurance companies. So if you run into an accident that involves your acupuncture sessions, it’s likely that it won’t be covered by medical insurance. Even if the effects are close to medical-related injuries like bleeding or nerve damage, it’ll be an uphill battle to have any healthcare provider cover for expenses with treating them.
So if you are looking to get into acupuncture, keep in mind that you will need to provide your own insurance to make sure that you’re protected in case things go awry. Again, getting to a licensed acupuncturist will significantly reduce the chance of the procedure going wrong.
These considerations should always be kept in mind when going to acupuncture. Despite all of its benefits and tangible improvements it can make for a patient, there is still much that hasn’t been studied about acupuncture. For this reason, only consider it to treat low-risk and chronic conditions like lower back pain, and not as an active cure for these ailments.
One way that you can have acupuncture sessions with a bit of peace of mind is to consult with your doctor before your sessions. Often, a physician will have a better idea of how your body will react to the procedure, like pain tolerance, the general need for acupuncture, and overall post-procedure aftercare.
They can also help with reducing the common side effects that may arise from acupuncture sessions, like swelling, inflammation, and bleeding. Typically, you’d want to inform your physician about the regularity of your visits to the acupuncturist, and any physical changes that happen after each procedure.
Visiting a physician is also essential if you’re on medications like anticoagulants, have a pre-existing condition like anemia, or are going through pregnancy. While acupuncture is a minimally invasive procedure that doesn’t carry immediate risks, the unknown complications of how it interacts with each person mean you need to be very careful about going through with it if you fall under any of these categories.
Finally, if you experience any symptoms or changes that are not explicitly linked to your acupuncture sessions, your physician can diagnose and treat these changes if they need immediate attention. Overall, acupuncture as an alternative method of pain management isn’t a bad idea, but it should always come with a doctor’s approval.
Acupuncture can be an excellent alternative to pain medication to treat instances of back pain, but you need to remember that it can only alleviate pain, not address the cause. If the pain becomes too intense or is aggravated by acupuncture sessions, stop the treatment immediately and consult a doctor.
The Spine And Rehab Group has years of experience in providing personalized and effective solutions for back pain. We help our clients overcome and manage chronic or acute spinal conditions, with targeted treatments combined with an emphasis on excellent customer service. For more information on the services that we can provide for you, visit one of our New York clinics today.