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Chronic Neck Pain: How Acupuncture Can Help

07 October 2018

If you have chronic neck pain — as some 15 percent of the U.S. population does, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — the thought of getting pricked with up to 20 needles might not sound appealing.

But time after time, acupuncture has shown its worth in scientific studies for chronic pain relief — all through the likes of those tiny (and barely noticeable) needles that are believed to activate the body's natural pain-fighting defenses.

So whether you've got "text neck," a persistent crick or an injury from long ago that never quite healed, you might want to give acupuncture a try. And that's true now more than ever, especially given what many have labeled the "opioid crisis": In 2016 alone, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that 116 people died every day from an opioid-related drug overdose.

As those statistics continue to cause concern, many people are shifting toward non-drug alternatives for pain relief, including acupuncture.

The Science of Pain-Relieving Pinpricks

A 2015 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that patients who had acupuncture for chronic neck pain had a 32 percent drop in pain after 12 months.

Most recently, a May 2018 paper in the Journal of Pain studied more than 20,000 patients across 39 research trials. In it, researchers found that the pain relief of acupuncture lasted for more than a year for those who had attended between six and 15 half-hour sessions. Later on, those striking results even prompted the American Academy of Family Physicians to respond, acknowledging the potential benefits of acupuncture.

Restoring an Ancient Practice

Eastern practitioners used acupuncture long before the advent of modern medicine, starting around 2,500 BC. Back then, Chinese healers believed that ailments could be treated by restoring the balance of yin and yang in the human body. They used acupuncture to affect the flow of inner energy as it traveled through different pathways of the body, which they believed could restore that vital balance.

Western medicine has adopted acupuncture for relieving chronic neck and back pain, headaches and osteoarthritis, says the Mayo Clinic. Now, practitioners believe that the practice can activate the central nervous system, release endorphins and prevent pain signals from reaching the brain, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

That modern-day confidence in the practice has triggered a growth of licensed acupuncturists and the patients who see them. California, for example, has more than 8,000 licensed acupuncturists, the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine reports. By researchers' estimates, more than 4 million Americans engage in acupuncture therapy.

Acupuncture 101: What You Should Know

But what is acupuncture — and why is it a good treatment for neck pain? For starters, acupuncture sessions involve the careful placement of tiny needles (as many as 20) at "acupoints" across the body. Usually, the needles stay put for 10 to 20 minutes, although the acupuncturist might gently adjust them during treatment.

How Does Acupuncture Work for Chronic Neck Pain?

When inserted in the right places — which may or may not be where you actually feel pain — acupuncture can potentially activate connective tissue, nerves and the muscles, which then activate natural pain defenses, says the Mayo Clinic.

The Washington Post reports that it can also help your body release pain-suppressing endorphins, like the kind you get after you go for an energizing run.

What To Know If You Need Acupuncture

Luckily, you don't need a prescription for acupuncture. If you feel it's something you'd like to try for neck pain, give it a go to see if it works for you! Just know that you might need to pay out-of-pocket for it, as many insurance companies might not cover services like acupuncture and massage, according to Consumer Reports. (You could, however, try to make a case for coverage by getting a letter from your doctor explaining why the treatment is medically necessary for your pain.)

Just make sure you work with a certified acupuncturist who uses sterile needles. Also, steer clear of acupuncture if you have a bleeding disorder, pacemaker or are pregnant, the Mayo Clinic cautions. Beyond those warnings, you'll also want to be aware of a few side effects, which can be minimal and include aching, bleeding or bruising near the punctured spots.

What If Acupuncture Doesn't Work?

Acupuncture that works for one person may not work for another, so if you still suffer from chronic neck pain even after several weekly sessions, try these pain-relieving alternatives:

  • Daily stretches, like neck bends or tilts
  • Chiropractic care
  • Applying an ice compress or heat pad
  • Massage therapy

And if you work at a computer all day, try an ergonomic office setup to protect your neck.

Just check with your doctor if your pain becomes severe or won't go away — and ask about acupuncture as a treatment for neck pain. After all, nobody should have to live with pain, and if a few weekly pinpricks can make things better, what are you waiting for?