Acupuncture for back and neck pain - does it actually work?

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Answered by: Karen, An Expert in the Back and Neck Pain - General Category

Do you suffer from migraines, back pain and neck pain? Maybe you have diarrhea or constipation, or asthma and eczema? What about a low sex drive or infertility? Or even depression and a smoking addiction?

These are just a few of the conditions acupuncture has been known to treat and/or aid. With origins dating back to ancient China, acupuncture is one of the most well-known components of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). And in a world of excessive medicinal drugs, it’s also fast becoming a popular healthcare alternative.So how does acupuncture work exactly? Malcolm Wong, from Wong TCM Clinic, explains that our body is full of qi, or life energy. When qi flows freely, the body is healthy. When qi is blocked or imbalanced, disease and illness follows. By applying stimulus (usually thin sterile needles) to specific points along the body’s meridian, qi can be restored. Short of resembling a pincushion, TCM practitioners may use other methods such as acupressure, cupping or moxibustion.

But does acupuncture actually work? Wong has been practicing TCM for over ten years and says some of the most common ailments he encounters in his clinic are headaches, exercise-related injuries, and arthritis, as well as other more ‘intangible’ imbalances such as stress and insomnia. He says that over half of his patients report successful treatment, especially where conventional medicine has failed to work.

James, 36, who had seen several doctors and sports specialists for chronic back pain, went in skeptical and came out pleasantly surprised. “It took a couple of sessions,” he says, “but it actually worked. It’s been a month and the pain hasn’t returned as far as I can tell.”

Professors Steven Novella and David Colquhoun aren’t so convinced of its benefits. In a co-authored article featured in Anesthesia & Analgesia, they believe acupuncture is ‘theatrical placebo’. “After decades of research and more than 3000 trials, acupuncture researchers have failed to reject the null hypothesis, and any remaining possible specific effect from acupuncture is so tiny as to be clinically insignificant. In layman’s terms, acupuncture does not work – for anything,” says Novella.

Louisa, 40, is undergoing her fifth cycle of IVF treatment and has been using acupuncture as a complement, until recently. She believes ‘it’s been nothing but a waste of money and needles’ and feels she’s been ‘duped into believing it’s the miracle cure-all.”

So what if you’re still considering acupuncture? Are there any side-effects? Acupuncture is known be relatively safe and minimally invasive, but like any other medical treatment, is not 100% foolproof, especially in the hands of an unskilled practitioner. Accidental puncture to the lungs (pneumothorax) and hepatitis have been reports as serious side-effects. Others include bacterial infections from needles, injury to the skin, allergic reaction to the herbs use, and, in some cases, a worsening of the existing condition.

The take-home message? “Beware of shoddy acupuncturists,” Wong warns. A TCM practitioner should be licensed and accredited, and belong to the country’s associated board or society. Most are trained in both traditional Chinese medicine and modern biomedical sciences. And like other health care professionals, they are still bound by the same professional Code of Ethics and standards of care.

Whether or not you believe in the philosophy, there’s no denying acupuncture will probably be here for another few thousand years. And if you’re looking for a more holistic approach to your health problems, this could be the way to go. Unless, of course, you're trypanophobic.

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