Acupuncture and Back Pain

Acupuncture is an ancient form of Chinese medicine that has been around for more than 2500 years and is becoming an increasingly popular treatment for back pain. According to the theory of acupuncture, energy—called chi or qi—flows through the body along pathways called meridians. If the flow of chi is interrupted, pain or illness can occur. When that happens, very thin needles can be inserted along the meridians to correct the flow of chi.

No one is sure exactly why acupuncture works. Eastern philosophy holds that the needles unblock interrupted chi. Western medicine has a few theories of its own. Some believe acupuncture stimulates the nervous system and the 2000 energy centers in the body, which in turn triggers the release of natural painkillers in the form of endorphins, opioid peptides, and chemicals from the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. Others believe that acupuncture needles help contracted muscles relax, stimulate nerves in the legs, and decrease inflammation of the nerves in the lower back.

Studies by the National Institute of Health show that acupuncture is effective in treating back pain, and 2500 years of success for the Chinese backs this up. Like all back pain treatments, acupuncture seems to be most effective when used in conjunction with other treatments. It is also very safe, with no known risks as long as you chose a reputable practitioner. Needles are sterile, disposable, and FDA-approved. In the U.S. they are used only one time, sealed before use, and disposed as hazardous waste after treatment.

In the United States there are over fifty acupuncture training schools, which require approximately 3000 credit hours of study and offer the equivalent of a Masters Degree. Often an undergraduate degree is required for admittance to an acupuncturist college. The first two years in acupuncture school are spent in classroom study, the third year is spent as an apprentice to a licensed acupuncturist, and the fourth year is spent as in intern working under supervision on patients. States have different requirements for acupuncturists, but all must take a state examinations and/ or a national exam in order to be licensed to practice. To find an acupuncturist, contact the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture.

During an acupuncture treatment session, the practitioner will insert anywhere from one to twenty needles into various places in the body. Some needles may go in just under the skin, while others may go deeper into muscle and fat. Needles will be left in from fifteen to thirty minutes. The practitioner may turn needles one way or another after inserting them into the body, or leave some in for only a few seconds before removing them and inserting them elsewhere in the body.

Dont be surprised if the practitioner treats your back pain by putting needles in your ankles, knees, or fingers. This is a technique called percutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (PENS), where needles are inserted into nerve centers and electrically stimulated. You can expect to feel relief for chronic pain in about ten to fifteen treatments and sooner for acute or sudden pain.

Other things an acupuncturist may do: 1) Use moxibustion, an herb that is burned onto the needle before insertion to stimulate the area being treated; 2) Cupping: burn cotton in a glass cup, which is then placed on the skin to create a vacuum; and 3) prescribe herbal supplements in addition to physical treatment.

You may be surprised to learn that acupuncture is rarely described as painful. In fact, many people find it relaxing and even fall asleep during treatment. Some people feel energized. One reason for this is the type of needles used. Acupuncture needles are very different from hypodermic needles. Instead they are very thin and fine, like hair. They are also solid, whereas hypodermic needles are not, as they are made to extract tissue. So getting acupuncture needles inserted into your skin will feel nothing like getting a shot at the doctors office.

When you are considering acupuncture, it is important to make sure the practitioner is someone you feel comfortable working with. Look for someone who is interested in your whole health and takes time to ask and answer questions. Since some medical doctors also practice acupuncture, you will want to make sure they are licensed in acupuncture in addition to their other training. To check if a practitioner is licensed and accredited, contact the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.

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