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Acupuncture has become very popular in the United States as a treatment for many illnesses and symptoms, including low back pain. This treatment method was originally developed in China, over 2000 years ago, and has become a common method for relieving pain and other symptoms in this country.
In addition to studying the role of acupuncture in the treatment of low back pain, the National Institutes of Health has also funded a large amount of research on the effectiveness of acupuncture in the treatment of nausea and vomiting associated with pregnancy, chemotherapy, and after an operation. It has also been studied as a useful treatment for addiction to cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs, as well as a method for alleviating headaches, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, and asthma.1
Acupuncture treatments consist of placing very thin stainless steel needles into the skin of the patient in certain locations that are thought to correspond to certain organs and anatomic areas deep within the body. There are several thousand "acupoints" that have been described by traditional Chinese acupuncturists, each of which has a particular significance in the treatment of different diseases and symptoms. According to the traditional Chinese understanding of the human body, a natural form of energy that is vital for the proper functioning of the human body flows through twelve "meridians" in the human body. This energy force is called "chee," and is understood to have both good and bad qualities. The balance between these two aspects of the life force, the yin (a dark, female force), and the yang (a light, male force), controls every aspect of the human body. Acupuncture seeks to correct imbalances in relative amounts of yin and yang within the human body by inserting needles into acupoints that are aligned with certain meridians.
Acupuncture, when practiced by a skilled individual, is usually painless, and modern disposable needles carry almost no risk of infection. While the theory behind how acupuncture works has not been validated by modern scientific investigations, many people have obtained substantial relief as a result of these treatments. Acupuncture is relatively inexpensive, is readily available in most communities in the United States, and is even starting to become covered by some health care plans. There are several large-scale studies that are currently underway that are trying to determine how acupuncture compares to other forms of treatment for patients with low back pain, but unfortunately, the results of these studies won't be available for several years.
The practice of acupuncture is safe in general as practiced by experts. Sterile needles used in treatment cause relatively few complications. However there are rare occasions of serious adverse events such as infections and punctured organs. There may also be adverse effects as with any standard drug treatment for conditions such as fibromyalgia, myofascial pain, and other musculoskeletal conditions.
The issue of whether or not to seek the services of an acupuncturist for the treatment of low back pain is largely personal. Many people believe that an ancient form of medicine that is based upon thousands of years of experience must be able to offer some benefit in the treatment of a disease, like low back pain, that has not been "cured" by modern Western medicine. Today, it is becoming a well-accepted form of treatment, especially as a means of alleviating pain and reducing the amount of medications that someone with low back pain takes. However, there are some conditions for which acupuncture has been studied and appears to have possible efficacy, but in some cases no real efficacy has been demonstrated. Ask your doctor about efficacy of acupuncture in treatment of specific spinal conditions.