Treating Back Pain with Acupuncture

By Nicole Murray, L.Ac.

About Back Pain

Back pain is one of the most common reasons people seek medical treatment. Eight out of 10 people have experienced some form of back pain in their lives according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. In a given three month period, 25% of adults in the US will experience back pain. We definitely see this here at Beach Community Acupuncture, where we treat back pain in some form at least 5-10 times every day.

Symptoms vary, depending upon the underlying cause. Pain may be dull or achy, sharp, burning or stabbing. There may be associated pain, weakness, tingling or numbness in the hips, legs or feet. Likewise, the pain may be mild- more an annoying sensation than anything- or it may be so severe that the person is unable to stand up, sit down, or make any movement without excruciating pain.

Back pain may be acute or chronic, and is treated differently depending upon the cause.

Acute back pain comes on suddenly, and is more quick to respond to treatment. On its own, acute back pain usually resolves in several days to a few weeks. This pain may be the result of trauma (e.g., a car accident, or a fall during sports). We commonly see sprains (overstretched ligaments in the back) and strains (torn muscles caused by a sudden force).

Chronic back pain persists longer than 3 months and may be due to arthritis or long-term wear and tear on the spine. Other possible causes include:

  • A herniated disc, which can push against the spinal nerves, often causing radiating pain (aka radiculopathy-sciatica is a good example of this);

  • Spinal stenosis (narrowing of the space between the spinal cord and nerves);

  • A genetic curvature of the spine, like scoliosis or kyphosis;

  • Fibromyalgia, a condition causing widespread pain, among other issues, and thought to be a problem with how the brain processes pain signals;

  • Osteoporosis and compression fractures;

  • Muscle spasms or extremely tight muscles, often compressing nerves (the Piriformis muscle often causes radiating back pain); and

  • Pregnancy.

Conventional Diagnosis and Treatment

Medical doctors will typically perform a physical exam and ask a lot of questions to determine the cause of the pain. If needed, they may order an X-Ray, MRI or specialized studies that relate to specific conditions.

Treatment usually involves pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), such as ibuprofen or naproxen. If the pain does not respond to these medications, muscle relaxers are sometimes prescribed. WIth severe pain, narcotics, such as codeine or hydrocodone, may be used for a short period of time.

In some cases, surgery may be recommended.

Acupuncture for Back Pain (Yes, We Can Treat it Without Needling the Back)

An analysis of dozens of studies on acupuncture and low back pain was published in The Annals of Internal Medicine in 2005. The research shows that acupuncture is “…clearly effective in providing considerable pain relief,” according to study author Eric Manheimer. “The research also showed that acupuncture provided true pain relief. The benefit was not just due to the placebo effect.”

We use effective distal points (away from the area of pain, especially at the hands and feet) to open the channels.  These are the most important acupuncture points, especially in acute pain. Patients relax in their recliners for 45 minutes, and often nap. Our recommendation for how often to come in will depend on how long you’ve had the condition, and how severe it is. WIth severe pain that impedes daily living, we often advise people to come daily for at least 3-5 days to start, then we can space the treatments out a bit. For moderate, long-term conditions, we often see people twice a week for a few months. People almost always get significant relief with acupuncture.

Mayo Clinic Staff: Back Pain. 9/11/2012.

NIMASD Handout on Health: Back Pain

New York Times: Back pain in depth report

University of MD Med Center April 18, 2005. Study Analysis Shows Acupuncture Effective for Treating Chronic Low Back Pain

NCCAM Aug 2010. Acupuncture for Pain

Doheny, K. Web MD Health News. Acupuncture May Ease Chronic Back Pain

Study Shows Acupuncture Trumps Standard Care for Back Pain Relief May 11 2009

Treating Back Pain with Acupuncture
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