Acupuncture for Back Pain
Back pain and other back problems are among some of the most chronic conditions in Canada(1). Specifically, 80% of people will suffer from low back pain during their life and although in half of the cases it will resolve in 4-8 weeks, 85% of people will have it multiple times(2).
What are the most common causes of back pain?
Back pain can be divided into two general categories, acute and chronic. These have several possible causes which vary with age. Disorders of the joints, soft tissues, spinal nerves, and organs can all cause back pain and stem from simple problems like general muscle weakness or strains to more serious conditions like osteoarthritis, deformation of the spine, disc herniations, or sciatica.
The majority of back pains come from sprains and strains, last a relatively short time, and will resolve themselves. However, multiple injuries will contribute to the development of chronic back pain by causing unnecessary wear and tear on the joints discs and bones in the spine.
Here are some of the common causes of back pain(3):
- Sprains and strains – overstretching or tearing ligaments, tendons or muscles causes most acute back pains and often happens when lifting with poor form or something too heavy
- Traumatic injury – playing sports, car accidents, simple falls can all cause injuries (tears, compression, herniation) that result in back pain
- Intervertebral disc degeneration – happens when the vertebrae become weaker with aging, also seen commonly
- Herniated or ruptured discs – an outward bulging or rupture of an intervertebral disc (the cushions between the vertebrae), causing pain
- Sciatica – compression of the sciatic nerve which runs through the buttock and down the back of the leg causing burning or shock-like pains from the low back possibly all the way to the foot; in severe cases numbness and muscle weakness can also result
- Skeletal irregularities – including lordosis (accentuated low back arch), scoliosis (abnormal curvature of the spine), or other congenital abnormalities
Occasionally, back pain can be caused by things like infections, tumors, and other serious medical conditions (cauda equina syndrome, abdominal aortic aneurysms, kidney stones). Having an assessment of your back pain is important to rule out any of these conditions.
Standard Western Medical Treatments
Treatments for back pain vary significantly depending on the cause. For example, hot or cold packs can ease pain in acute, subacute, or chronic back pains, while continuing activities (and avoiding bed rest) that do not aggravate the pain can help maintain flexibility. Strengthening exercises to maintain and build back muscles are used in chronic or subacute back pains along with other physical therapies to support the core, develop posture, improve mobility/flexibility.
Medication is another option for those suffering from back pain and range from over the counter pain medications (analgesics) to those that require a prescription (NSAIDS) or other doctors appointments (nerve blocks, epidural steroid injections). Surgery is an option when the above therapies or combinations of them fail, when serious musculoskeletal injuries or nerve compression are causing back pain. Surgeries are not always successful and may cause further problems so patients should be fully informed of related risks by their doctor(3).
How can Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture treat back pain?
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and acupuncture are increasingly being used to treat all kinds of musculoskeletal pain. Whether it is an acute or chronic pain, TCM views it as being caused by a blockage of well oxygenated blood flow to the area (traditionally called “qi and blood stagnation”) which leaves the tissues undernourished, stuck, and in pain. This can be caused by any of the Western problems already described above and can be treated with a number of TCM modalities including acupuncture, Tuina massage, cupping, or guasha.
When it comes to back pain TCM evaluates whether there is an underlying or root cause that may not be apparent according to Western medicine. Contributing factors such as exposure to certain environmental conditions, poor diet, emotional stress, poor posture, or constitutional problems are also considered in TCM treatment of back pain, especially chronic cases.
How can Acupuncture help treat back pain?
The strong analgesic (pain relieving) mechanism of acupuncture has been widely studied(4) and acupuncture is now being accepted as a comparable therapy to other conventional pain relief methods. Many well done randomized clinical trials (RCT) have generally concluded that acupuncture is effective in relieving back pain when compared with no treatment and comparable to conventional treatments for back pain(5). This is often in reference to chronic back pain cases in which acupuncture can relieve pain, eliminate stiffness, stimulate joint and muscle mobility, and prevent long term recurrence of the problem.
Acupuncture is also very beneficial for acute back pain, usually caused by muscle spasms or strains. Acupuncture helps to sedate and relax the affected muscles, release spasms, and reduce inflammation to stop acute back pain. This is done through manipulation of the muscle either at motor points or trigger points, which help to essentially “reset” the muscle by signalling the nerves to fire properly again.
Acupuncture points on the hands and feet (distal points) as well as local points are used in the treatment of back pain. Electrical stimulation of the needles may also be used to enhance the effect of the acupuncture. And for those patients who wish to avoid the use of needles, our clinic offers the option of laser acupuncture.
If there are certain muscle groups or other physical abnormalities causing the problem, these can be addressed directly and in many cases the patient will leave their first appointment feeling significantly better. For chronic back pain sufferers, the course of treatment may be longer but improvement is generally expected.
If you or a loved one are experiencing chronic or acute back pain, please do not hesitate to contact us to find out if/how Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine can benefit you, and help you get back to moving through your daily life pain free.