In traditional Chinese medicine, there is no such thing as simple back pain.
More correctly, there is not just one type of back pain but several, so that every individual back pain is classified and differentiated.
This is important to understand, because while acupuncture is widely recognized as being an effective treatment for back pain, the specific acupuncture points that would be used by a specialist would depend upon the type of pain from which you are suffering.
Amongst the different types of back pain recognized by traditional Chinese medicine, you will find:
- Deficiency type pain: This is a pain that is usually found in middle-aged or elderly people, one which is commonly characterized by a dull, aching pain that can be alleviated with rest.
- Blood stagnation or Qi (’energy flow’) pain: In traditional Chinese medicine, it is believed that muscles are able to move blood, energy (Qi) and other bodily fluids by stretching and contracting. Consequently, if muscles are not stretched sufficiently strongly or often enough (which is true for most people in modern society), your Qi will become congested and it is likely that you will suffer significant or perhaps serious levels of pain.
- Cold and damp obstruction pain: This is a pain form that is most widely felt first thing in the morning, one that is made worse by the cold and damp weather. In Western medical terms, this would be the kind of pain most commonly associated with arthritis or sciatica. As would be expected with these particular medical conditions, this is a pain that is often accompanied by numbness, a feeling of weight or heaviness, and swelling in the joints or muscles of the back. Because this particular type of pain is exacerbated by the cold and damp, it is one that can be most effectively dealt with by the application of heat. In traditional Chinese medicine, the basic concept is that when you feel any bodily pain or discomfort, it is telling you that your body balance and harmony is somehow upset. Consequently, in order to reduce or remove pain, it is necessary to restore balance and harmony and acupuncture is one of the primary modalities used to achieve this restoration.
Improper Use of Muscles Can Obstruct the Flow of Qi
Acupuncture assumes that in modern society, most of us are not using (i.e. stretching and contracting) all of our muscles properly and that as a direct result of this disuse, many of our muscles have contracted and tightened.
This contraction and tightening means that Qi and blood are unable to flow through these muscles in the correct fashion, meaning that when we do try to use them, our muscles are simply not up to the task.
Consequently, when an unusual strain is placed on the muscle in question (most commonly, the muscles of the lower back), that muscle will go into spasm even if this additional strain is relatively minor such as bending forward to pick something up from the floor or cleaning your teeth.
How An Acupuncturist Treats Your Back Pain
An acupuncturist will treat your back pain on the basis of moving blood and Qi around your body with the use of needles.
A trained acupuncturist knows that there are many different blood and Qi ‘channels’ in your body, so their first task will be to palpitate various parts of your back to establish where the major centre points of pain are.
Points of pain are places where Qi has become congested, and the more pain there is, the more congestion there is assumed to be.
As a result, the acupuncturist will insert needles in such a way that these channels are opened out so that the congestion and therefore the pain is removed.
Your acupuncture practitioner will apply needles in both a local (i.e. at the point of pain) and distal (i.e. in other parts of the body) manner in order to open up your Qi channels.
Although it may appear to be somewhat counterintuitive, treating back pain using distal acupuncture points is very important, particularly in the treatment of acute back pain.
Thus, needles placed in other parts of the body a considerable distance from the back can be extremely effective, although there are also many places in the back itself where acupuncture needles are likely to be extremely effective as well.
Electric Current to Stimulate the Body
Alternatively, it is possible to enjoy acupuncture treatment where the practitioner uses an electric current rather than needles to stimulate the body and open the appropriate Qi channels.
Given that many people have a fear or loathing of needles, this is often a more attractive alternative, although it may be more difficult to find a practitioner who will use electricity rather than needles.
Is Acupuncture Backed By Science?
The most important question is, does acupuncture work as a treatment for back pain?
The results of a study conducted by two leading Swedish doctors in 2001 tend to indicate that the answer to the question appears to be an unqualified ‘YES’.
According to the results published in ‘The Clinical Journal of Pain’ and reported on the Acupuncture Today website, the two doctors tested acupuncture as a back pain treatment on a group of people who had been suffering from chronic lower back pain for at least six months.
Every one of these people had tried various other back pain relief treatments or cures but to no avail.
The test group was split into three smaller groups. The members of one of these subgroups received acupuncture treatment once a week for eight weeks, the members of the second group received electro- acupuncture, and the members of the third subgroup were given a placebo.
The final results of the test indicated that all of the patients who had received acupuncture reported ‘significant’ improvement in their condition one month, three months and six months after completion of the treatment. They also reported that they were able to sleep more soundly than previously, and that they were also able to achieve higher activity levels than previously as well.
Acupuncture is Extremely Effective for Back Pain
In short, there seems to be little doubt that acupuncture as a treatment for back pain can be extremely effective although the test did report that there were certain types of back pain and patients that responded to treatment better than others.
Perhaps most interestingly, the study also indicated that both forms of acupuncture (using needles or electro- acupuncture) were equally effective, indicating that even if you have a phobia about needles, acupuncture will still work for you if you are seeking relief from back pain.
If you want to try acupuncture for relief from back pain, you may want to talk to your regular doctor first.
There is also the question of cost. A single session can range from about $60 to $130, and many health insurance plans don't cover it.
Before setting up an appointment, also make sure that you contact a professional licensed in your state. An acupuncturist should have proper training, licensing, and certification to administer safe treatments.
Each state has a board of health that monitors and registers acupuncture practices.