Q&A: Can Acupuncture Alleviate Chronic Back Pain?

Q: My mother suffers from chronic pain after having back surgery in 2004. Two discs were fused and she has two screws in her lumbar area. She currently alternates between Topiramate (Topamax) 25 mg for low grade pain and Hydrocodone Acetaminophen (Vicodin) 5-300 mg for high grade pain. I have taken her to several spine specialists and pain management specialists and she has been through physical therapy. I also take her for chiropractic treatments and massage. None of this seems to alleviate her pain. Her last back x-rays also indicated arthritis and degeneration in her spine, and the beginning of spinal stenosis. Can your experts please suggest something else to alleviate my mother’s pain?
Rebecca Berkson, L.Ac, Dipl.OM: Unfortunately, the story of your mother’s pain is all too common. Back pain affects 70% of Americans in their lifetime and is currently the leading cause of disability. With the limited options typically offered for pain management by medical professionals, many of those who suffer from back pain find themselves depending on prescription painkillers, despite their many negative side-effects and the risk of addiction with long-term use. Acupuncture, on the other hand, is a non-narcotic and VERY effective treatment for chronic back pain – and it’s a treatment method that we use frequently at the Kaplan Center.
Acupuncture involves the placement of fine needles on the body for the purpose of reducing pain, and to treat various physical, mental, and emotional conditions. It is thought to work by blocking pain messages to the brain with competing stimuli through the release of endorphins – the body’s natural painkillers – and the secretion of neurotransmitters, which affect one’s perception of pain.
While acupuncture has been practiced for thousands of years, it is also standing the test of modern research. In 2007 the results of a large study of over 1,100 patients with chronic back pain was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. After 10 treatments, the group that received acupuncture had a 47% improvement in pain and functioning after six months, compared to a 27% improvement among those who received more conventional care involving medications and physical therapy. (Unfortunately, while there are also studies focusing on spinal lumbar stenosis, they are inconclusive due to poor methodologies and research biases.)
At the Kaplan Center, a patient’s initial visit includes a complete health assessment covering the history of the back pain, as well as other potential health concerns such as sleep, digestion, and additional musculoskeletal issues. A holistic approach is used to provide maximum pain relief and healing – even in complex cases of post-operative pain and arthritis. I would recommend a course of at least 8 acupuncture treatments for your mother, which may include adjunct treatments, such as heat therapy or “moxabustion,” Chinese herbal medicine, and electro-acupuncture. Most patients report benefits after a few sessions though many notice changes immediately following the initial visit.
In sum, acupuncture is a low risk, non-pharmacological intervention which is effective in reducing pain – helping to improve the quality of life for chronic pain sufferers. I wish your mother, and you, the very best as you decide on her next course of treatment.
– Rebecca

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