Acupuncture has been used to treat pain for more than 5,000 years, and is still a mystery in many respects. There are few scientifically understood reasons how and why acupuncture works, and yet, studies find time and again that often it does help relieve pain.
One such case study, featured in the New England Journal of Medicine last summer, followed the progress of a 45-year-old construction worker with chronic back pain. He tried several treatments, including cortisone shots, physical therapy and medication, before finding relief through acupuncture.
Although one case study doesn’t prove the effectiveness of a procedure, it may shed light on how a comprehensive approach to back pain, embracing a combination of clinical diagnostic medicine and integrative medicines, can be an effective treatment plan for patients.
Cliff Morland, a clinical acupuncturist at Galter LifeCenter, explained that a blend of Western medicine and Eastern therapies can work particularly well when used to treat back pain.
“Back pain is a complex condition, and different people find relief in different ways,” Morland said. “When you combine the latest technology and diagnostics with age-old techniques and a holistic approach to care, the patient gets the best of both worlds and a better chance of healing.”
Morland is not alone in this thinking. The American College of Physicians, the American Pain Society — organizations largely focused on Western medicine — and the World Health Organization each recommend that health care providers of all backgrounds consider acupuncture as a viable treatment option for refractory chronic low back pain.
Acupuncture in practice involves the insertion of metal needles into the skin at specific sites. These sites are often located on what many believe to be meridians, or pathways in the body, where vital energy, known as qi, flows. The needles are thought to unblock disruptions or imbalances in the flow, caused by any number of factors which cause pain. Needles are left in place for 15 to 30 minutes while the patient relaxes.
Morland explained that acupuncture is particularly well-suited for back pain because the back is a central point for the meridians, and nerves bundles and muscles where there is a lot of neurological activity leading to the back, neck, head and feet.
Although many physicians coming from a Western perspective may not fully accept the belief in qi and meridians, many have theorized that these techniques can stimulate the release of endorphins, decreasing inflammation and produce mechanical stimulation of connective tissue and other effects on local tissues, which could relax muscles and relieve pain.
Dr. Daniel Laich, a neurological surgeon on staff at the Chicago Back Institute at Swedish Covenant Hospital, tends to agree. The Chicago Back Institute neurological surgeons make a point of considering conservative measures — including acupuncture and massage therapies — to treat patients, particularly as an alternative or pre-cursor to surgery.
“There are numerous, highly effective non-surgical treatments for people with back pain that should be fully explored before considering surgery,” Laich said. “Surgery is not the answer for most patients with back pain, and we favor less aggressive, complementary and rehabilitation-focused treatments first, as appropriate.”
Acupuncture has been found to be effective when used sooner rather than later to treat an injury or pain, making it a low-risk first step, Morland explained.
“In acupuncture, we like to say we are treating the branches to fix the root. In this we mean that we are not just treating the symptoms, but the real root of the problem,” Morland said. “The Chicago Back Institute shares this idea and they focus on treating more than the back pain, but the cause of the pain.”
Learn more about acupuncture and other integrative therapies at Galter LifeCenter's National Massage and Integrative Therapy Week celebration to be held October 23-29.
This article originally appeared on WellCommunityChicago.org, Swedish Covenant Hospital's online health and wellness magazine for the North side of Chicago.
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