What is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is an alternative or complementary treatment modality that has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine and, in recent years, has emerged as a popular therapy in the West. The discipline is rooted in the philosophy of ancient Daoist traditions, which date back to more than 8,000 years ago! The central premise of acupuncture is balancing the extremes—“yin” and “yang”—of “qi,” the body’s life force. This is accomplished through direct interaction with meridians, pathways within the body through which “qi” flows. During an acupuncture session, a practitioner will insert sterilized stainless steel needles into strategic points along these meridians, known as pressure points, in such a way as to balance the bodies energies and bring about harmony between “yin” and “yang.” This resulting harmony can produce a variety of desirable outcomes, include pain relief, relaxation, and emotional balance. Acupuncture is generally regarded as a very safe procedure, as serious side effects are uncommon; however, in rare instances, complications like infection or deep bruising can arise. For this reason, it is critically important to ensure you only receive treatment from a well-trained, qualified acupuncturist.
What’s the science?
Like many alternative treatments, the science behind acupuncture is inconclusive. One reason for the lack of definitive scientific evidence is that it is difficult to develop a “control” treatment against which to measure the benefits of acupuncture. As you can imagine, it’s hard for scientists to come up with a method of sticking needles into people that isn’t acupuncture. That difficulty aside, there is significant scientific and anecdotal evidence to suggest that people who undergo acupuncture experience very real benefits. This is especially true in the treatment of back pain, so acupuncture is an excellent component of any treatment plan for patients who are looking to do everything they can to relieve back pain without surgery.
What can I expect at my first appointment?
The most important thing you can do when incorporating acupuncture into a treatment plan for back pain is to ensure you find a practitioner who is a qualified acupuncturist. While acupuncture is a very safe procedure, it does require puncturing the body with needles, so you want to ensure you are being treated by a trained professional. When you arrive for your appointment, it is advisable to wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing—like you would for a massage—because you will need to undress to some degree during the treatment. At the start of your appointment, the acupuncturist will take some time to discuss their plans for the session with you to ensure you know exactly what to expect. Once you are both on the same page, you will lie down and the acupuncturist will begin to place sterilized stainless steel needles into the pressure points they have identified as being most likely to generate relief. Once all of the needles have been set, they will leave you in the room to relax and let the needles do their work; following a period of 30-45 minutes, they will re-enter the room and remove the needles. Following your appointment, it is very important to make sure the needle sites remain clean and dry to prevent infection, which is a very unlikely complication of the procedure.
Can it really help back pain?
As previously stated, there are some inherent difficulties in quantifying the benefits of acupuncture as a treatment modality. However, many people who undergo the treatment for back pain have had positive outcomes in decreasing pain, controlling inflammation and increasing quality of life. In fact, scientific studies have highlighted back pain as one of the conditions with the greatest likelihood of responding favorably to acupuncture. When treating back pain, your practitioner will likely focus on pressure points in the back of the knees, the feet, the lower back, the hand, the hip, and the stomach. By activating these pressure points along the body’s meridians, it is believed that acupuncture stimulates the nervous system, causes the body to release natural opioid-like chemicals and neurotransmitters to relieve pain, and triggers the release of electromagnetic impulses within the body. While many people experience relief in their first appointment, the best results are achieved through a commitment to frequent sessions; in fact, many people make acupuncture an ongoing part of their health and wellness routine even after the most painful symptoms of back pain have resolved.
While the science of acupuncture may be inconclusive, there is ample evidence to support including it in a holistic treatment plan for back pain. For most people, acupuncture is all upside; there is very little risk of serious side effects and, in many cases, people see very real benefits from the procedure.