Acupuncture for Neck Pain:
A recent article in Time magazine has this byline: Acupuncture Actually Works for Neck Pain
I love the qualifier “actually”. As if after 40 years of acupuncture in the USA, anyone would be surprised.
When I began my acupuncture practice in San Diego 28 years ago, I often had to answer the question “does acupuncture really work” ? My response was honest: “acupuncture has worked for me on my back pain, neck pain, migraines, and allergies”.
In those days I also used to get patients whose M.D.’s, has begrudgingly approved of “trying acupuncture.” After failing to help these people with their pain, these docs would allow acupuncture treatment for them. The they would approve condescendingly with an, “it probably won’t help, but it won’t hurt.” This happened alot.
The Acceptance of Acupuncture for Neck Pain by Western Medicine
Things have changed. Every week now I get patients with back, neck, shoulder, elbow, knee and other kinds of pain whose Pain Specialists and Orthopedic Surgeons are Gung Ho on acupuncture for pain.
So it did not surprise me when Time magazine came out with this article. Reporting on a randomized trial done in the U.K., and published in the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine, Time reports that not only did Acupuncture reduce neck pain by 32%, but that in contrast, Physical Therapy only reduced pain by 9%.
A year after the start of the study, people in the groups doing acupuncture and the Alexander Technique had significant reductions in neck pain—pain was assessed by questionnaire—compared to those who just got usual care. Both groups reported about 32% less pain than they had at the start of the study, which is far greater than the 9% typically associated with physical therapy and exercise.
The Strength and Weakness of Physical Therapy as Practiced in USA
That Acupuncture worked so much better than Physical Therapy for Neck Pain did not surprise me at all. The strength of Physical Therapy in the Western Medical system is its ability to make strong the weak. Their tool box is full of fabulous ways to rehabilitate injuries through strengthening.
The flip side of this equation is that Physical Therapists do not seem to pay attention to the inflammation that causes chronic pain, or to the tight, shortened fascia and muscles that produce inflammation in chronic pain and overuse syndromes. P.T.s seem to have a rather monocular focus on strengthening.
Weakness versus Tightness and Inflammation
Its true, strong muscles protect joints. And sometimes getting muscles stronger has an excellent effect on chronic pain. But its also true that its difficult to strengthen chronically tight muscles and fascia, because muscles work by contraction. You cannot strengthen without good contractions.
Its also true that pain is due to inflammation. So if you just address weakness, without doing anything about tightness or inflammation, you will not have a great result.
“Before you can strengthen a weak muscle, you have to reduce pain, lengthen muscle fibers, and get rid of the inflammation. This why acupuncture (and dry needling) is so helpful for chronic pain conditions.”
Acupuncture for Neck Pain is Not One Size Fits All
Acupuncture treatments are always tailored to the individual. There different needle sizes and different amounts of stimulation exerted on the needle. Sometimes the needles go in just below the skin, and other times, they can go in 2-3 inches, like with the Piriformis muscle in the butttock.
I like very strong needle Qi, just like I love ART (active release therapy) a kind of deep tissue manual therapy you really have to breathe through. On the other hand my friend Anna is very delicate and can only tolerate super light needling, like what I might do on a little kid. But it works for her because at her sensitivity level, her brain still gets the message. No need to shout.
Dry Needling versus Acupuncture for Neck Pain and Trigger Point Pain.
There are many different styles of Acupuncture, from Classical Chinese Acupuncture, to what Physical Therapists refer to as Dry Needling. Dry Needling can also be called “Trigger Point Acupuncture.”
In my San Diego acupuncture clinic I do Dry Needling on 75% of the patients who come in for neck and other kinds of pain involving both fascia and muscles (Myo-fascial Pain).
When I Choose Dry Needling
I find Dry Needling more effective than most styles of acupuncture for deactivating painful trigger points. I also use Dry Needling to release motor points in the muscles and fascia. This enables the muscles and fascia to return to their normal length. It also helps to reduces the inflammation that causes the pain. Now go do those strengthening exercises.
Dry needling breaks the vicious cycle of tight stiff shortened muscles. It deactivates the trigger points associated with most neck pain. Its even effective with Herniated and Bulging Discs because it opens up the disc space and gives your body a chance to return to normal.
Because a lot of neck and shoulder pain is stress related, I often combine my Dry Needling sessions with a little bit of Classical Chinese acupuncture to relax the sinews and calm the mind.
How Many Sessions Does It Take to Treat Neck Pain?
Most of my patients feel some kind of immediate relief after just one session. They get up off the table and feel relaxed and their neck feels looser. They may feel a “post workout” kind of soreness.
Most people show marked improvement after just three sessions, and I rarely see someone for more than six sessions.
The great thing about using acupuncture for neck pain is it is totally safe. there is no danger or risk involved, especially when compared to surgery or even chiropractic. I love chiropractic myself, I used to get my neck adjusted periodically, but its true, on occasion it did make my pain worse. And chiropractic neck adjustments do come with an element of risk for serious injury.
Thanks to the M.D.s who undertook this research!