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Acupuncture and back pain

Q: I have suffered with back pain since I was 14 years old.  I'm now 27 and still suffer greatly. I was diagnosed with scoliosis in my lumbar region and was seen by a physio. I've made several visits to my GP but they keep supplying pain relief. Last year I paid to see a chiropractor- most of my spine was out of line and he helped. Then pain carried on and I then tried accupunture and deep tissue massage. This eased the pain a little. Because both practises mentioned a lot wrong with my spine, sciatica and whip lash symptoms I revisited my GP hoping for a scan to get some answers. Instead they referred me to back2health- an NHS back clinic. I have been having accupunture and chiropractor there and my pain is getting worse- and I'm finding daily activities demanding. I am now having to take constant pain relief. Is the treatment they are giving me a cause for the worsened pain do you think? As the acupunture is extremely painful there- unlike when I received it at a Chinese clinic. I just want some answers to my pain and find a way of managing it

A:We are very sorry to hear of your experience. It must be very disappointing to have been getting somewhere with treatment only, like in a game of snakes and ladders, to find yourself going downhill again.

In our experience, any disturbances which people experience after acupuncture treatment are usually short-term and transient, lasting 24-48 hours at most. We are aware from patients who visit chiropractors and osteopaths that much the same applies, two or three days of mild to moderate discomfort followed by a gradual improvement. Our view is that often when the body is severely out of alignment, any attempt to correct posture means bringing into play muscles which have been working out of position for a long time and which are resistant to change, even positive change.

If things are getting worse rather than better, then we always recommend that patients stop having treatment. It may be that the getting worse has nothing to do with the acupuncture and chiropractic, and we are used on occasion to be taken to task because we happen to be treating at the same time as a problem is deteriorating for other reasons. However, if there is any doubt we recommend that someone stops treatment for two or three weeks to see what is really happening.

Your mention of the different between the needling at a Chinese clinic and the needling at the Pain Clinic does make us wonder what kind of acupuncture you are receiving. In our experience, many of the western medical professionals who use acupuncture use thicker needles inserted in a slightly different way, and this can often feel quite rough after a more traditional Chinese approach. However, the really big difference is the theory underlying the different types of acupuncture. Whereas western acupuncture is largely based on trying to release trigger points in muscles and achieving a neurophysiological effect to jam out local pain signals, Chinese medicine is based on an entirely different view of the body as a system of energy, called 'qi', whose balance, rhythm and flow needs to be optimal for the body to function properly. If everything functions as it should, then the structure of the body follows. This is the opposite direction to osteopathy and chiropractic which both work on the premise that correct structure allows and encourages normal function. This is why the two types of treatment can dovetail well.

Whether the current treatment is causing your problems to be exacerbated we can't say. In our experience it would have to be serious mis-treatment to make things worse, and we don't believe this is likely. Much more probable is that the treatment you were having before was successful in maintaining a level of balance where the pain was manageable, and if it is within your means to do so we would recommend that you go back to what was working for you. There used to be an old maxim in the profession, whether true or not it is difficult to say, that it often took as many months as the years a patient had suffered with a problem to help to remove it. This may just have been to make us more realistic about how quickly we could help people to get better, but in any event it made us remember that long-standing problems would not simply vanish but would require perseverance and patience. Having had your problems for nearly 14 years it may take a while for the full benefits of treatment to work their way through.

We are assuming that you were happy with the treatment you received from the Chinese clinic, and if so, you would be well advised to go to them again. If not, we are sure that there will be a BAcC member local to you who will be more than happy to see you for a brief chat without charge to give you the benefit of a face to face assessment of what acupuncture treatment as they do it may be able to offer.