As a leading cause of disability, back pain is one of the most commonly treated musculoskeletal problems. Back problems that are most receptive to acupuncture treatment are those caused by sprains, muscle strains, minor injuries, or muscular spasm irritating or pinching a nerve. Although painkillers are a useful short-term solution to relieve discomfort, as a longer-term option they can often mask the problem rather than addressing the underlying cause of the back pain, which is where acupuncture can help.
There is a wide body of research showing that acupuncture can provoke a number of physiological changes, which relieve pain, improve mobility and reduce inflammation. A study recently published in the Australian medical journal, conducted in the emergency department of a hospital, has shown acupuncture to be as effective as, and safer than, medication for relieving acute back pain. As such it is being increasingly embraced as a popular choice of treatment for acute back pain.
Although effective for both acute and chronic pain, more often than not people tend to come into clinic when the pain has become more chronic. Unsurprisingly, people are more inclined to seek treatment after their pain has eased, and mobility improved, with the help of painkillers, preferring to rest and avoid unnecessary movement.
Unless, there is a structural disc-related problem which requires rest, or the pain is severe, the advice now is that it is better to be active as soon as you're able to prevent muscles weakening and stiffening further. Gentle movement encourages good blood flow to the injured area, which helps the back to heal.
The treatment for chronic pain usually takes a little longer because areas of spasm can become locked-in, or other areas tighten due to over-compensation, when treatment to bring about muscular release has not been given early on.
Reassuringly, during the very early stage of an injury there is no need to needle locally into a painful area as there are points located in the ankles, wrists and hands that can do the job of releasing a painful muscular spasm. Once the inflammation has subsided then the local area would be targeted with carefully placed needles to release tight spots and reduce pain.
By stimulating nerves located in muscles and other tissues, traditional acupuncture helps release the body's natural pain-relieving hormones, including endorphins and oxytocin. These hormones can change the way the body processes pain, helping to reduce discomfort and distress. This can replace the need for synthetic drugs, without the risk of side effects. Traditional acupuncture works also works effectively alongside modern medication and other therapies, such as osteopathy. In fact it can even speed up the recovery process.
When an acupuncture needle is inserted local anti-inflammatories are released, blood flow is increased to the local area and excess fluids are dispersed to promote healing and aid recovery.
Traditional acupuncture treats the whole person so the acupuncture points chosen for one person with lower back pain may be different for another person with the same symptoms. This tailored approach is one of the key reasons traditional acupuncture is so effective.
Back pain can be prevented and the more that a body is used to flexing and extending, contracting and releasing the muscles that support the spine, the easier it is for muscle releasing pathways to be activated when a back is tweaked. This is why it is so important to regularly support the back with gentle exercises, such as Yoga or Tai chi, which are great ways of gently stretching the muscles in the lower back, as well as strengthening your core to help stabilise the spine. Yoga is an effective way of lengthening the hamstrings too. These are the big muscles in the back of the thighs which, when tight, can limit movement in the pelvis, making back injury more likely.
Nicky Thomas is a member of the British Acupuncture Council.