Back pain affects around 85% of adults at some point during their lives. Acupuncture has been proven to relieve back pain and has been approved by the UK body NICE since 2009.
NICE has recently looked at the evidence for acupuncture in treating lower back pain and has decided to allow GP's to refer patients with persistent, non specific lower back pain for a course of acupuncture treatment. They are advised to offer a course of up to 10 acupuncture sessions over a period of up to 12 weeks. This includes people who have been in pain for longer than 6 weeks but for less than one year and where the pain might be linked to issues in the joints, muscles or ligaments.
Why is back pain so common?
The human back is made up of many muscles, bones, nerves, ligaments and other soft tissue. We are required to use our back with almost every movement we make. As it is also the core of our body, pain and injury there can be referred to other areas of the body.
Up to 80% of back pain is caused by muscle strain. This is often the medical diagnosis given when there is no injury visible on x-ray or MRI. The back is composed of many short extensor muscles that connect each vertebra and they are more susceptible to strain than the larger leg muscles. These shorter muscles are more prone to tightening and involuntary spasm which may be caused by injury, incorrect posture, or stress.
Muscle strain can also be due to inflammation of the spinal ligaments or tendons. In any situation, when pain is experienced, it is the body’s message to slow down. Muscle strain is best resolved by increasing circulation. Pressure such as massaging the area will increase circulation, as will acupuncture.
Many people have heard of sciatica, and experienced it personally. Sciatica is caused when the sciatic nerve becomes impinged or trapped. The sciatic nerve begins in our lower back and travels all the way down both of our legs to the toes. It is a very large nerve, and therefore easily impinged by tight muscles. As the muscle tightens around the nerve a sharp pain is felt, usually in the buttocks area. Depending on the severity, the pain may travel along the length of the nerve, causing radiating pain down the leg, either along the back of the leg or the side of the leg.
There are also many types of disorders involving the discs of the back. Between each vertebrae in our back lies a cushion, that can be seen as a jelly-like disc. When all is healthy in our backs, the disc acts as a support and cushion between the vertebrae, it allows flexibility and strength. But the disc is sensitive and vulnerable to many types of injury. Commonly called a “slipped disc”, a prolapsed or herniated disc is when the soft inner core of the disc has bulged out. This can cause an impingement or trapping of the nerves around the area, and/or inflammation. The core continues to move away from the disc (it “slips”), and can go in any direction, most commonly backwards. The pain often includes pain of the arms or legs, as the core has impinged on a nerve in its travels.
In a recent study, 50 patients with back pain were given 10 acupuncture treatments. Nearly every participant felt some degree of relief from acupuncture. 40% had their symptoms eliminated, 56% reported a range of 'marked relief' to 'some improvement' and only 4% did not feel any changes. (Source: Journal of Chinese Medicine 2003:23-1 51-52)