Tennyson the Acupuncturist

Surgery? Steroid injection? PT? Acupuncture? Help!

Chronic pain effects quality of life. By definition, it is pain that has persisted for 3 months or longer. That is a long time. It is exhausting to endure and can be equally exhausting trying to resolve it. It is common for me to see clients who have explored many options already before they land in my office. Often, they have X-rays and MRI results in hand and PT orders. Sometimes they have already been through a series of PT sessions, without the results they were hoping to gain, and have no follow up scheduled. This lonely place can feel like a dead end.

In the case of chronic pain, practitioners and patients alike, can get exasperated and not have a solid plan going forward. Meanwhile, the patient continues to suffer. Such is this case with this 54 year old woman. She suffers from chronic neck pain after having had surgery over 20 years ago from muscle and nerve issues. Her recent MRI shows degenerative changes in multiple cervical vertebrae that are causing pain, tingling and muscle weakness. Her current treatment plan from her orthopedic surgeon is to try a formal series of PT, consider a local steroid injection, with the possibility of surgery, to address compression and degeneration in the C6-C7 area.

So, can acupuncture help? In this specific case, the answer is yes, and no. Let me explain.

I have seen this client for acupuncture as well as full-body therapeutic massage and bodywork sessions. I know well the chronic tightness she caries in her upper back and whole neck as well as in her jaw. In addition to her neck issue, which takes most of the attention these days, she also had a left hip replaced due to an infection that settled in the joint, causing its decay.

In her case, as is the case with the many orthopedic cases I see, acupuncture (including the use of electro-stimulation) paired with strategic, therapeutic bodywork can address the muscles and connective tissue. By releasing muscle bellies, restoring the resting length of the muscles and flushing the problematic areas of metabolic waste, pain can be relieved and function can be restored. Because her imaging results show degenerative changes in some of her cervical discs, acupuncture may not be enough. But, it is still an important, complimentary therapy in her case. Failing to properly address the muscles and connective tissue, could lead to further problematic areas down the road.

How does acupuncture relieve pain and restore function? If muscles are chronically contracted, they habitually pull on the structures they are connected to, which causes pain. I like acupuncture and strategic therapeutic bodywork, as a first line of defense,along with proper stretching and strengthening that the client does on their own or in a PT setting. I prefer acupuncture over massage in certain cases where I don’t want to use friction or pressure on an inflamed, painful area. I am professionally trained in both.

In the case of this client and her neck pain, what should she do? To me, above all else, relax and restore every soft tissue area in her neck and upper back as well as integrate this area of her body with her as a whole. The neck is stacked on everything else below it, is it not?! All the way down to the feet.

Lasting relief is and should be a multifaceted approach. Should someone get a steroid injection? Will PT, done on a tightly wound body, bring adequate relief? Should surgery be done? Maybe. It depends on the details of each case. For this client, surgery may be unavoidable. And, isn’t it wonderful there are skilled surgeons out there to help us when things get to that point and surgery is the only option?! But, as an experienced Acupuncture Physician of 15+ years, with 20+ years experience as a massage therapist, thoroughly addressing the soft tissues, using more wholistic options like acupuncture and strategic, therapeutic bodywork, whenever possible, gets my vote.