Pinpointing the Benefits of Acupuncture for Back Pain

A staple of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), acupuncture or “needling” has been used to treat back pain for over 2000 years.

Needless to say, 2000 years ago, our concept of biology was in its earliest stages. The ancients had yet to invent technologies, like microscopes, that would enable them to study diseases. But, they understood that something vital must exist beneath the surface. In other words, they knew that there were forces that could make you sick and practices that could promote healing.

This knowledge gave birth to the notion of Qi or “the life force.” The ancients believed that Qi (sometimes spelled “chi”) flowed through pressure points on the body. These acupuncture points synced up to form 12 meridians, or paths of energy much like the lines on a map.

If any one of these pathways became blocked, then the ancients believed that you would become sick. At its outset, acupuncture sought to restore the flow of Qi by using needles to redirect and open up energy flow. However, now scientists believe that acupuncture works by harnessing the “chemical” energy stored in our nervous system.

How Does Acupuncture Treatment Relieve Chronic Back Pain?

Have you ever heard of a “tattoo high”? This occurs when a person who receives a tattoo feels a rush of euphoria mid-way through their tattooing session.

Although much less intense than receiving a tattoo, the pain release from acupuncture is thought to work in much the same way.

During an acupuncture session, a licensed professional will insert between 4 – 30 needles into your back. Yet, on average, 6 – 8 will do the trick. The depth of the needle will be tailored to fit your condition. For example, deep tissue injuries, like muscle strains and sprains, will call for deeper needle access than surface injuries.

After about 20 minutes, your doctor will remove these thin needles and insert more.  But, it’s what happens next, in the middle of your 1-hour session, that’s interesting.

As your body adapts to mild pain, your nervous system (including your brain and spinal cord) kick into high gear. (In fact, some people believe that using acupressure points can turbo charge this process in ways that inserting needles into random areas simply couldn’t.)

As the minutes tick by, your body responds by releasing endorphins, the body’s natural form of opioids or pain-relievers. Endorphins (which also give rise to the “Runner’s High” and Tattoo Europhia”) work to dampen neck and back pain. Simultaneously, acupuncture fires up the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. These structures labor to create even more chemicals that blunt how we experience pain.

In addition to needling, your doctor may also use the following therapies to jump start your pain relief:

  • Electrotherapy, or running a weak current through the needle to relax the muscles
  • Cupping, or using suction cups to increase the flow of blood to key areas
  • Moxibustion, or using an herb to warm up the needle

Harnessing the Benefits of Acupuncture Therapy

If you have been living with chronic back pain for quite some time, then you are probably more than ready to explore new paths to relief. Consider these science-based benefits of acupuncture:

  • Going Medication Free: Most people don’t get jazzed up about the idea of putting unnatural chemicals into their bodies. And, for good reason. Although effective, pain medications like Vicodin can lead to addiction. Even milder drugs, such as ibuprofen, can cause nasty side effects, like stomach ulcers. As a form of “alternative” medicine, acupuncture doesn’t rely on the use of drugs to treat your pain. This means that you can achieve pain relief by making the most of your body’s natural, addiction-free analgesics.
  • Pain Relief: In 1998, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) stated that needling could be used to ease nausea, especially in cancer patients. Since then, studies have also shown that acupuncture can be used to relieve:
  • Mood: Like yoga or meditation, needling urges the patient to relax and can relieve stress. People who use acupuncture report lower levels of depression, anxiety, and insomnia. In fact, studies show that people who use needling also have lower blood pressure.
  • An Immune System Boost: High stress levels are often linked to illness. But, it’s an equally well-known fact that relaxation can give the body a natural immune boost. When we feel energized, our bodies can fight diseases more effectively. (And, we just tend to feel better in general.)

Finding Out What Works For You

Acupuncture isn’t the only form of alternative therapy. Just as the thought of taking medicine doesn’t excite many patients, equal numbers of people feel skittish around needles. If needling doesn’t sound right for you, keep in mind that you can try other forms of gentle treatment for back pain. Other effective therapies include:

  • Physical Therapy
  • Chiropractic Care
  • Yoga
  • Pilates
  • Tai Chi
  • Massage Therapy
  • Aromatherapy
  • … and many more!

However, if you have tried alternative treatments for longer than six months without finding relief, then it’s probably time to see your doctor. For advanced spine care that you can trust, contact our team of spine specialists at The Advanced Spine Center. With over 50 years of combined training, our spine surgeons will help you find treatments options that work for you.