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Ask an expert - muscles and bones - osteoporosis

2 questions

As you have no doubt seen from the factsheet on our website

chronic pain is often treated with acupuncture. There are good historical reasons for this. When the popularity of acupuncture rose sharply after Nixon's visit to China in 1976 one of the more eye-catching uses was of a man having heart surgery using acupuncture for pain relief and anaesthesia. Many researchers invested a great deal of effort in this area because the neurotransmitters associated with pain are easily measures, and the patient outcome assessment methods are quite sophisticated. Although there is nothing conclusive enough for us to give an unqualified 'yes' in answer to your question, the issue for us is not whether the treatment will work but the extent
to which it will work and how sustainable the effect is.

From a Chinese medicine perspective, pain arises when the flow of energy ('qi' as we call it) in the channels is either blocked, in excess or deficient. Changes in the proper flow always generate symptoms, and the skill of the practitioner lies not simply in reinstating proper flow in the affected area but determining whether it is a local problem or whether the symptom is an indicator that the overall balance has been affected. This can often mean treating the system as a whole and inserting needles a long way from
the site of the pain, which many find a little baffling.

The judgement call which the practitioner has to make with the patient is whether the extent of relief and the time that it lasts justifies the expense of the treatment. It can, unfortunately, come down to finances, and it may well be that if the relief is shortlived (less than a week), and there is no progressive improvement a practitioner might start to look for other options instead of, or as well as, treatment. With osteoporosis proper, this might be a more critical discussion. Once bone density has gone it's gone, and unless it is demonstrable that acupuncture is helping the patient to get worse slower, then it is probably sensible to explore other options. Transient osteoporosis usually spontaneously resolves within 18 months, however, and there may well be some value in looking at combined treatments to help someone through the problem.

The key thing is to review progress at all stages. Treating chronic problems can often lead to a pattern of treatment developing which can often run to several hundred pounds in cost, and it is vital that the patient gets to review whether the continued expense is worth it.

The best advice we can give is that you visit a BAcC member local to you for advice. This will probably give you a better assessment of what may be possible, and means that the practitioner can advise you based on your unique presentation.

There is not a great deal of evidence from research trials for the treatment of osteoporosis with acupuncture. There are some very positive laboratory-based studies of the treatment of rats, but nothing of substance on human subjects.



However, it sounds from your question as though the pains may be coming from sciatica induced by the erosion and collapse of the lower vertebrae, and there is certainly more evidence suggesting that acupuncture may be of use with this, as can be seen from our factsheet here


As far as the underlying problem is concerned, however, while Chinese medicine works from an entirely different theoretical basis, the problems which people now face are no different from ones have faced for thousands of years. There are a number of ways in which what we term 'osteoporosis' was recognised and treated. In some systems of Chinese medicine the treatment offered is aimed directly at the problem; in others, the treatment is much more a matter of balancing up the energies of the body in the simple belief that where balance exists, symptoms disappear.


The important thing to remember, though, is that direct physical loss or damage is the same in any system of medicine, and in the words of the sales slogan, 'once it's gone, it's gone'. For chronic degererative conditions the best hope is that things get worse slower or stay at the stage they have reached, so this is very important to bear in mind if you choose to seek treatment from a BAcC member.

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