How to Cure Lower Back Pain

Q: I’ve heard that acupuncture helps with low back pain and other problems. But I just don’t get it. How does it work?

A: American doctors first learned about acupuncture from no less an authority than Sir Wiliam Osler, often considered the father of modern medicine. “For lumbago,” he counseled a century ago in his classic medical text, “acupunture is, in acute cases, the most efficient treatment.” (Lumbago is an old-fashioned term for low back pain.) Although many scientists are skeptical abut the benefits of acupunture, the specialty has gained an impressive following in this country. An estimated 15 millions Americans have tried it with varying degrees of success for chronic pain, fatigue, nausea, arthritis, digestive problems and a range of other ailments. One acupuncture researcher, a neurologist at the chronic pain program at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington D.C. claims that by providing short term relief, acupuncture frees pain patients to work on physical and behavioral problems that often perpetuate pain and dysfunction. Many patients with chronic low back pain find that acupuncture will help not only break the pain cycle, but allow them to reduce pain medications and participate more vigorously in physical therapy.It is difficult to understand how acupuncture works in terms of a biochemical model of health. All living beings are imbued by a “vital force” which is a manifestation of an inner energy that is more than synapsing neurotransmittors and vibrating molecules. This vital force, in Traditional Chinese Medicine, is called “QI” (pronounced chee). Pain, or any physical dysfunction, is considered in Traditional Chinese Medicine to be due to stuck, or stagnant Qi. Here’s where the needles come in. First of all, they ought to be called filaments. They are extremely fine and nothing is injected through them. The sterile, disposable filaments act as conducting rods when inserted into the acupoints where Qi is stagnating. The metal will stimulate a current, similar to an electrical current, to galvanize the stuck energy to flow, thus restoring balance and harmony to the entire system. Some researchers say that acupuncture works in pain relief by blocking the electric currents in the pain pathways as they ascend through the spinal cord to the brain. In experiments with rabbits, rodents, cats, and humans, investigators have shown that acupuncture stimulates the nervous system to release endorphins and other chemicals that relieve pain. Endorphins, discovered in the mid-1970s, are chemically similar to morphine. This may be part of the story, but there is unquestionably an “energy” system which enlivens us, and which has not yet been totally dissected by modern science. A qualified acupuncturist is trained to assess where your Qi is stuck, and to stimulate the appropriate points and restore the healing flow. Although many patients will experience immediate relief from low back pain, or other complaints, with the first session, it is best to commit initially to 6 or 8 sessions within a short period of time before assessing whether or not it is working for you. Juneau is lucky to have several licensed acupuncturists who would be happy to answer more questions about this ancient and still safe and effective healing art.