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Acupuncture and Back Pain

What is back pain?

Back pain is one of the most common reasons people seek medical attention. It is one of the most frequent causes of missed workdays and one of the most expensive conditions in the United States; according to a recent government report, in 1999, nearly one million people in the U.S. took time away from work to treat and recover from some sort of back pain.

Back problems can be caused by an inordinately wide range of problems. It can exist alone, or it can be caused by a condition that occurs elsewhere in the body, with the pain being transmitted (referred) to areas of the back by the nervous system. The majority of backache sufferers complain of pain in the lower back; the second most common site of discomfort is the base of the neck.

Who suffers from back pain?

Half of all adults will experience some form of low back pain during their lifetime. The fact that humans walk upright puts great pressure on the spine and the muscles that support it. Over time, factors such as disease, accidents, poor posture and overexertion can lead to immediate and/or long-term back problems.

Most back pain is muscular in nature. Muscle pain perpetuates what is known as the pain cycle, a phenomenon of which the back is particularly susceptible. In the pain cycle, pain causes a muscle to spasm, which may distort the discs, joints and nerves of the spine. This spasm leads to further pain, leading to further spasm, which compounds the original problem. If the nerves are irritated enough, it may cause pain to radiate down into the leg, similar to pain experienced via a herniated disc.

In most cases, people who experience an episode of acute back pain will recover in 3-12 weeks. For those who don't recover, however, chronic back pain can be a significant source of inconvenience and suffering.

What can acupuncture do?

Acupuncture can play an important role in the reduction or elimination of back pain by reducing recovery time and preventing a chronic condition from developing.

Research has shown that acupuncture causes the body to produce natural steroids and promote the production of natural endorphins. Steroids decrease inflammation, while endorphins are produced by the body to kill pain. Both substances can play an integral part in the breaking up of the pain cycle.

By reducing acute back pain, acupuncture may also reduce the chances of chronic back pain from occurring. It can help avoid the need for costlier and more invasive surgical procedures. And if back pain can be significantly reduced with acupuncture, it also lowers the need for painkillers or other medications that can either cause unwanted side-effects or prolong a patient's condition.

Many styles of acupuncture may help ease back pain. Some practitioners may advocate very few needles at particular acupoints on the hand; other practitioners may employ electroacupuncture at several points on the body simultaneously. In general, the longer the pain has been present, the longer it will take for acupuncture to produce a response.

As with any other form of care, however, remember that not all patients will respond to acupuncture. Make sure to discuss the situation thoroughly with your acupuncturist before undergoing treatment for back pain (or any other condition).

References

  • Coan RM, et al. The acupuncture treatment of neck pain: a randomized controlled study. Amer J Chin Med 1980;8:181-189.
  • Ernst E, White AR. Acupuncture for back pain: A meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Arch Intern Med 1998;158:2235-2241.
  • Lee A. Back pain and the role of acupuncture in management. Available online at www.barefootdoctors.com/backpain.html.
  • Patel M, Gutzwiller F, Paccaud F, Marazzi A. A meta-analysis of acupuncture for chronic pain. Inter J Epidem 1989;18:900-906.
  • Thomas M, Lundberg T. Importance of modes of acupuncture in the treatment of chronic nociceptive low back pain. Acta Anaesthesiol Scand 1994;38:63-69.
  • Yi-Kai L, et al. Silver needle therapy for intractable low-back pain at tender point after removal of nucleus pulposus. JMPT June 2000;23(5):320-3.

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