I could smell it taking my dog for a long walk. Then again I tied my shoes. And, yes, here he is once again after pulling off a marathon work session from the couch. The “it” in question? My persistent (and very annoying) sidekick, low back pain.
Now, I’m far from alone in feeling dull pain or stiffness in my lower back: 84% of the world’s population will suffer from at least one episode of low back pain in their lifetime, according to research– 23% of whom suffer chronically (meaning the pain lasts more than 12 weeks – ouch!).
My pain is what experts classify as “non-specific”, meaning it’s not from a known injury (like a herniated disc) or infection, and it comes and goes depending on my level activity or types of exercise I do. TO DO.
Over the past five years, I have noticed an improvement by integrating Pilates into my twice-weekly training regimen (a recent meta-analysis in the Physiotherapy Journal found that the modality’s combination of strengthening and stretching relieved lower back pain better than more singularly targeted exercises), but my lower back still feels crunchy and cracked on occasion. I was curious what other therapies might provide some relief.
While acupuncture for back pain had been on my radar for years, it wasn’t until my dog ruptured a disc in his back and was prescribed surgery, physical therapy and of acupuncture that I have been able to see some of the benefits for myself. I thought to myself, if it’s good enough for a woman’s best friend, it’s good enough for the woman.
How does acupuncture work
Acupuncture is a practice of traditional Chinese medicine in which fine needles are inserted into various points on the body to stimulate blood circulation.
“By placing needles in the area of pain, we create an inflammatory response, which is our body’s natural way of repair,” says Evita Sokol, DACM, acupuncturist at WTHN in New York, who supervised my treatments.
In addition to targeted pain relief, acupuncture is thought to provide many benefits throughout the body, says Ansgar Lee, LAc, LMT, acupuncturist at LES Acupuncture & Bodywork At New York. “We’ve helped a lot of people with fertility issues, as well as digestive issues, chronic bloating, constipation, and stomach pain,” he says. “I see conditions like hormonal acneeczema, asthma and allergies too, it runs the gamut.
Each acupuncture session is tailored to the unique needs of the patient, and the acupuncturist can often address multiple issues at once. (For example, while my main concern was my lower back pain, Dr. Sokol’s initial take suggested that I had a slow spleen and could use some help with my digestion, so she placed needles in areas intended to help them as well.)
The first date
My first acupuncture treatment started when Dr. Sokol took my pulse and asked me various questions about my health, from bowel movements to menstruation. You can also have your language checked. (Chinese medicine practitioners believe its color, shape, and coating can reveal what’s going on inside your body, but mine didn’t due to ongoing COVID issues.)
Based on my answers and assessment, Dr. Sokol had me lie on my stomach during my session so she could access my back for needle placement.
First, she created what she called a “circuit” around my body with dots on my ankles, hands, and head. Each placement created a small stinging sensation and the pain subsided quickly. (If the pain persists after inserting the needle for a few seconds, you will want to ask your practitioner to remove and/or replace it. It may be positioned directly into a hair follicle, which can be painful.)
After the circuit was completed, Dr. Sokol placed a handful of needles in my back and shoulder.
During the session
I was then left lying on the table for 25 minutes with headphones on. I selected a music playlist called “chill”, with guided meditations also available. (I opted for the guided meditations in my follow-up sessions because I found it easier to calm my mind with a voice guiding me.)
My first session, to be honest, was difficult. Lying on my stomach on a table unable to move for almost half an hour, I felt a bit trapped. I wasn’t able to get out of my head and relax (ie the parasympathetic response – a calming, relaxed feeling – never really started).
Dr. Sokol says my experience is not uncommon. “Some people can feel claustrophobic face down,” she says. “But at the same time, some people prefer a face down treatment the first session because they don’t want to see the real needles.” (FWIW, I was given a little buzzer to hold in my hand to alert Dr. Sokol if I needed anything.)
When Dr. Sokol finally removed the needles, I felt much of the tension in my lower back melt away.
The side effects
Leaving the studio after that first session, I also felt a bit dizzy and unbalanced, which Dr. Sokol says is also normal.
“Because acupuncture deals with blood circulation, some people may experience dizziness during a treatment, which is why we encourage patients to eat at least one to two hours before a session,” she says. (Lee also cautions against drinking coffee or caffeinated beverages just before a session – a mistake I definitely made. Whoops!)
I went to WTHN almost every week (life happens, so sometimes I had an extra week between sessions). On my fourth time on the table, I was finally able to relax (in fact, nearly fell asleep), allowing the parasympathetic response to really work its feel-good magic.
Long term results
Every time I came to a session (I did eight in total) with a glimmer of low back pain, it was gone at the end. (Although conversely, once I walked in with no back pain, and after the session my back was a little grumpy.) After getting over my initial dizziness, I would often leave the studio feeling calm and uplifted. peace. . (A feeling that’s no different from leaving a massage.)
The back pain relief tended to last for a day or two, then I noticed the tightness starting to reappear. Several months after my sessions, I still suffer from occasional episodes of stiffness and pain, although less than before. I did this treatment.
My anecdotal experience tends to align with research on the effectiveness of acupuncture: there is moderate evidence to suggest that acupuncture relieves chronic and subacute low back pain compared to a placebo, according to a recent meta-analysis.
My bottom line? If you are looking for immediate relief, acupuncture can help. But as a long-term solution, you need to continue consistently and focus on other strategies (like core strengthening).
Amy Wilkinson is an entertainment editor who also specializes in health and wellness. When not editing or writing, she can be found teaching Pilates as a fully certified instructor.