Will acupuncture help my back pain?

When I found out that my insurance would cover 30 acupuncture sessions yearly, I was pretty surprised. In contrast, my insurance covers zero sessions of physical therapy.  I found an acupuncturist down the street whose holistic approach appealed to me, and booked a session to see what he could do about my back pain.

What does acupuncture even do?

  • Traditional acupuncture practitioners explain their treatments as a rebalancing of qi, life energy. Blockages along the networks of qi that travel our bodies lead to negative health situations, both physical and emotional. Through their work, these practitioners unblock stuck points, allowing qi to freely flow, promoting health in the body and emotions.
  • Western-style acupuncture researchers may explain acupuncture as stimulating the body’s muscles, nerves, and fascia.

My experience

In Virginia, acupuncturists must have an MA degree, but cannot call themselves doctors. My practitioner suggested I call him by his first name, which was Ali.

  • The atmosphere in the office was very welcoming and cool, not like a typical doctor’s office. I felt relaxed and comfortable.
  • Ali talked with me for over an hour about how I was feeling, both physically and emotionally. I was quite certain that just receiving this level of empathy and calm listening from a medical professional was going to mean I left feeling better than when I came in. I’m not sure how common this aspect of treatment is.
  • He first gave me some stretches to do daily, and also offered to grind an herbal tea blend for me that he thought would alleviate some of my symptoms.
    • Result: The stretches helped with the tightness in my back. I did them daily. I didn’t try the tea yet, but if Ali has prepared it in time for my next appointment, I will.
    • Update: Ali prescribed me an herbal mixture to help with insomnia, since my back pain was waking me up and keeping me up. During the time I was taking the herbs, I slept better. They didn’t have any side effects.
  • During the appointment, I demonstrated a twisting motion that reliably caused pain. With me standing, Ali swiftly placed several needles in my arm, and asked me to complete the motion again. I was skeptical, and really tried to recreate the pain–but it wasn’t there. I tried several more times in the office: no pain.
    • Result: Ten days later, the twisting pain is definitely gone.
    • Update: Three months later, the twisting pain is still gone.
  • For the rest of the treatment for my lower back tightness, I lay comfortably on a treatment table. Ali placed needles on my arms, hands, ankles, and feet. He went to work with some other patients, and encouraged me to just relax for 20 or 30 minutes.
  • When he came back and removed the needles, I could still feel pain in my low back. He didn’t seem worried, so I just kind of left a bit puzzled, feeling glad at least that the twisting pain was gone. He told me to monitor my pain, stress, and energy levels over the next week, and to come back in seven days.
  • As I went through the rest of that day and evening, I kept experiencing a cognitive dissonance: I would do a normally pain-causing motion, and -not feel- the pain. My rib cage felt more mobile as well. I still triggered pain when I lay down on my stomach, and felt pain in my SI joint if I slid my weight to one side.
  • The positive effects lasted till the next night, when I moved a heavy couch by myself under some adverse circumstances. The pain came right back.
  • In my second session a week later, I updated on Ali on what I had noticed, and he prescribed some additional stretches, which he practiced with me till I knew the sequence well. Then he combined needle work with Tui Na, a Chinese massage technique to address the pain I described.
    • Result: I feel a lightness and smoothness in my step. My back is more mobile, and I don’t feel pain after lying on my stomach or shifting to one side. Basically, everything I said hurt before stopped hurting.  When I arch my back–a movement that reliably caused pain before–I still get this moment of fear, or like my mind saying, “it’s about to hurt!” It still surprises me, but it doesn’t hurt.

Overall, I was open-minded about acupuncture before I went. People I respected, including a great primary care physician, had recommended it, but I was a bit skeptical, too, thinking it was probably mostly a placebo effect or positive thinking that made people think they were getting better. Now that I’ve had six sessions and experienced impressive results with no side effects, I’m a little bit in awe, and very curious to learn more about why it helped. I’ve recommended Ali’s practice to several people, and I’m going to continue to go to see just how pain-free I can feel.

I had done a lot of work with my body, including rigorous physical therapy, breathing retraining, core activation, and targeted flexibility work. All these things helped, quite significantly, but I still wasn’t at 100%. One of the hardest things to get rid of was the nagging back pain. I’ll keep working on improving my running form and standing posture, and I really think the acupuncture is complentary to those tasks, because not feeling the pain allows me to hold my body in a more relaxed way on a daily basis. I think it’s helping me smooth my posture out without tensing up because of a fear of pain.