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Acupuncture- what is it, and how does it work?

Acupuncture is often seen as a form of complementary medicine, although it is used nationally in many NHS general practices, as well as the majority of pain clinics and hospices in the UK. It is recommended by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence as a treatment for lower back pain, and a range of other conditions.  If we decide together that acupuncture is a good choice for you within your chiropractic treatment, then we can start there and then!  Our chiropractor Philippa is fully trained and registered to use acupuncture as part of her treatments in clinic.

Acupuncture involves the insertion of needles (which are about the thickness of a human hair) into specific points in your body.  Mention “acupuncture” to someone, and you may think of someone with dozens of needles in their back looking like a hedgehog. It may surprise you to know that we tend to use a maximum of 6 needles in our treatments!  This is because we use a Western medical approach to acupuncture in clinic, which is different to traditional Chinese treatments.

Want to learn more?

A medical approach to acupuncture involves a few essential features:

  • Medical history, examination and clinical investigations (if necessary) are all used to form a diagnosis.
  • An appropriate plan of management, and appropriate needling points are identified.
  • As with all our treatments, the appropriate treatment is given, in a way that is carefully tailored to the individual.  This can mean using more needles (usually up to a maximum of 6), using percutaneous electric nerve stimulation, or increasing the length of time the needles are inserted.
  • Your response to treatment is monitored, and subsequent treatment is determined based on your response to this treatment.

Acupuncture is, in itself, a phenomenon- it produces an unique sensation, can alleviate pain in areas quite far away from where the needle is inserted, and patients have been known to spontaneously report feelings of improved wellbeing and deep sleep after treatment!  This treatment is also a powerful tool for pain relief, and this sometimes occurs immediately after removing the needles; several hours after treatment; or gradually accumulating over a course of several treatments.

So if acupuncture is a phenomenon, with varied responses for each individual, how do we know that it is an appropriate, evidence-based, effective treatment for you?

Here are five mechanisms to help explain how acupuncture works:

1) Acupuncture promotes healing.  It stimulates nerve fibres in the skin and muscle, and this leads to the release of a substance called CGRP- calcitonin gene-related peptide (no, we won’t quiz you on this later!)  This substance causes blood vessels around the needle to dilate, and increases blood flow, which encourages tissue healing.

2) When a needle stimulates nerve fibres, these travel to a specific part of the spinal cord, called the dorsal horn (which helps regulate pain signals). This stimulation helps to reduce the response of the dorsal horn to pain, and this is probably the main mechanism by which acupuncture relieves pain, and what it is most commonly used for.

3) These nerve signals then transmit up to the brain, and stimulate the body’s pain-suppressing mechanisms.  (Yes, our body can suppress pain- think about the times when you haven’t noticed a scratch or a graze because you’ve been concentrating on something else). This is why acupuncture is so helpful, as it can suppress pain throughout the entire body.

4) Parts of our brain that control emotion, behaviour and sleep are also stimulated by acupuncture, and so acupuncture has a calming effect and can improve our feeling of wellbeing.

5) When our muscles are strained or injured, it develops a small area of damage (called a trigger point) which can be slow to heal and can cause persistent pain.  Acupuncture helps to deactivate and reduce these trigger points.

If you would like to find out more about this type of treatment, what it can be used for and whether it could be a good option for you, book an appointment with us today!

Back pain in children

Do you have back pain? Do you remember when it started? A lot of our patients don’t, it’s just “crept on over the years”, which often means that it is mistaken as an “older person’s problem”.  Unfortunately, back pain is something that is becoming more of a problem in younger generations (one study of 34,076 participants found that over 50% first experienced back pain before the age of 20!)

So why is back pain affecting young people? Let’s divert slightly and talk about teeth for a minute- most babies cut their first tooth at around 6 months old.  This is when parents then bring out the baby toothpaste and start encouraging healthy dental hygiene habits.  Babies can start to roll from the age of 4 months, and gradually progress through important developmental milestones, but when do we start promoting healthy spine habits in our children?  Unfortunately, we don’t.  It’s an area that has, and continues to be, overlooked.  Our aim is to promote healthy postural habits in children of all ages to help them grow “from little acorns to mighty oaks” and avoid having back, neck and postural pain.

You can help us do this, by continuing to promote healthy habits in your children as they grow up and start going to school.  A recent study published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood analysed 1403 children, and found that 61.4% of these children had backpacks that weighed in excess of 10% of the child’s bodyweight!  Those carrying the heaviest backpacks and a 50% higher risk of back pain, and girls had a higher risk of back pain in comparison to boys.

What can I do to help?

  • Babies:  Minimise the amount of time spent in baby equipment.  Yes, it’s easier to pop munchkin into a baby carrier so you have your hands free, but babies often spend their time being transferred from bouncer to car seat to baby swing back to car seat, and get very little time to develop the new motor skills that come from being able to wriggle around, practice, and experience using their arms and legs!  Occasional use is fine, but just be aware that every minute that little one is in baby equipment, is a minute of lost experience, so try to give them as much wriggle time as possible!
  • School aged children: Check your children’s rucksacks when they get in from school- remove any books that don’t need to be there.  (A good opportunity to also remove the toys, twigs, sweetie wrappers, stones or anything else that has been “acquired” by kiddo throughout the school day!) Also, don’t underestimate the importance of good footwear. Children are forever running around and supportive, soft-soled shoes with a good grip will make it easier for your little one to carry a school bag and avoid strains or sprains from poorly-fitting footwear.
  • Teenagers: Encourage regular breaks.  Yes, schoolwork is important, but taking a break every 30 minutes will help to stop postural pains and stresses from creeping on.  Ensure their desks are set up suitably- if you’d like some advice about workstation ergonomics and correct setup, let us know!

Remember- if your child continues to report back pain, it is important to consult a medical professional for appropriate advice.  If you would like more information, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us!

If you have any further questions you’d like to ask, please feel free to get in touch.

Water

What is the single best drink for your health?

We recommend you visit this youtube link to find out more about why water is and will always be the best drink for you and your healthy body. Click here to see more.

Going out for a run this morning? Did you know that at even 5% dehydration, your maximal performance will have reduced from 100% to 70%!

Water is often ignored, and passed-up in favour of more exciting drinks, but it is the single best thing that we can consume to help our bodies function properly and recover quickly.

Living without pain: The benefits of regular chiropractic care

We get annual health checks with our GP. We go for routine dental checkups. We eat healthily. We hydrate. We exercise. All these things we do to maintain our body- but what can we do specifically to maintain our spine?

Chiropractic care focuses on helping your body function at its peak. Chiropractors work to restore movement in joints that are stiff and not moving as they should, relieving tension in muscles, tendons and ligaments. This can help improve your flexibility, reduce pain, help your joints stabilise and of course have you feeling GREAT.

Whilst many people come to see us because pain or discomfort is preventing them from enjoying their day-to-day life, we often see patients for regular check-ups to help maintain their musculoskeletal system. It might be tempting to seek care only when things hurt. Pain is usually the last symptom to arrive and the first symptom to go. Before our brain will tell us something hurts, it will first process a vast amount of information before deciding if we need to experience pain. This means that there is often a threshold, where we can accumulate problems within our body that do not cause us pain until they’ve got to a more serious level.

So you can see, having regular appointments can help prevent problems from accumulating, helping you to avoid pain and keep functioning well

What is pain?

Pain is our body’s way of telling us there’s something wrong. It’s your best friend, and how our body serves to protect us. When we experience pain, we take action. It therefore makes sense that when our body is truly fed up with us ignoring something, it produces pain so we DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. A common misconception is that pain is produced by injured structures- but we now know that pain, no matter where or how it is felt, is produced by the brain.

Pain shouldn’t be ignored

It’s all too tempting to ignore pain, which is like putting duct tape across a “check engine” light in your car. Sooner or later, it’s going to cause a problem. We know that when people seek care during the early stages of a problem, they recover quicker and better than those who wait and see if the pain goes away on its own.

If, for example, your pain is caused by a joint that isn’t moving correctly, the pain may settle as your body learns to adapt to that faulty joint. Later on, the pain may reoccur and may be worse each time it does, because this time it’s accompanied by a bigger problem- the faulty adaptations your body has made to cope with that dysfunctional joint. It’s hugely beneficial to get the problem addressed quickly and effectively as soon as it happens.

If you are one of the many people who has ongoing problems, chronic conditions, or a jobs that requires prolonged sitting or physical exertion, regular chiropractic care may be an option for you to consider.

How often should I see a chiropractor?

Research shows that those who seek regular care (usually 3-4 appointments per year) experience almost a month less pain than those who come in when it hurts. Regular dental checkups help ensure your mouth and gums are healthy (with no potential problems looming on the horizon). A chiropractic check-up ensures your spine and nervous system are healthy and able to cope with the demands of daily life.

A study conducted by the National Institutes for Health (NIH) has found that spinal adjustments or mobilisations are an effective treatment for adults with acute, subacute, and chronic low back pain, migraine prevention, and cervicogenic headache. They are also effective for several extremity joint conditions affecting our arms and legs.  Thoracic manipulation also offers healing benefits to people with acute or subacute neck pain.

Regular visits to a chiropractor helps ensure the continued health of your muscles and joints so you can enjoy doing what you love. One of the key benefits of regular care is also the preventative aspect. By identifying any areas of your body that are not functioning correctly, we can help prevent pain and problems from recurring in the future. This can help ensure you remain healthy, active and pain-free, reducing your likelihood of needing time off work or being unable to enjoy life due to pain. Should any problems happen, regular care can help you recover faster, reducing the severity, duration and intensity of the problem.

How can I book an appointment?

Our highly experienced chiropractor Philippa can help – Book your appointment here.

Understanding our pain

How well do you understand the pain you experience?

Pain is defined as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage”, which is an interesting concept in itself as the definition clearly states that pain can be tangible, or simply mean that the potential for damage is there.

The amount of pain you experience does not relate to the severity of the injury you have sustained- think how painful a paper cut can be even though it is a relatively minor injury!  Similarly, we can continue to experience pain long after the original cause has resolved, simply because the body perceives that we are still in danger; this is due to changes in the local tissues.

One common misconception is that pain is produced by injured structures- but we now know that pain, no matter where or how it is felt, is produced by the brain. Before our brain will tell us something hurts, it will first process a vast amount of information before deciding if we need to experience pain.  Have you ever cut yourself and not realised until you looked down and saw blood?  This is because your brain processed the injury and did not perceive it as a threat to warrant pain signals.  Pain relies heavily on context and the brain’s perception of further threat- if you bump into a lamppost, it will hurt, but will it still be painful if you’re about to be run over by a train? Unlikely, because your brain will realise the incoming train is life threatening !

Pain can be both a help, and a hindrance- for example, if we put our hand on a hot stove, the acute pain we experience tells us that we are burning ourselves.  However, persistent pain can be very unhelpful as often it does not indicate ongoing damage.  This persistent pain is like leaving the volume knob on our radios turned up to maximum- it can block out other senses and become very disruptive in our lives.

When we are left with persistent or chronic pain, it can be hard to believe that there is no ongoing damage, it is because this persistent pain is more to do with our nervous system’s interpretation of the information it is receiving.  If you were asked to do the same task all day every day, it wouldn’t take long for you to become very good at it, performing the task quicker and more efficiently each time- the body can do exactly the same.  It can become very good at sending pain signals, and can actually adapt so that it sends these signals more frequently.  The body can then become so sensitive that it misinterprets normal messages (such as light touch) and responds to them as if they were dangerous.  We call this process “sensitization”.

What happens when our nervous system becomes sensitized?

When we perform recurrence activities they become familiar to us, and we become very good at doing them efficiently.  Now try to imagine if these activities were painful to perform.  If we perform these painful movements for long enough, the brain will associate the connection between those movements and pain, to the point that even preparing, or thinking about a movement can cause pain.  This can be very confusing and worrying if we do not understand why this is happening.

Deep, unexplained pain can often cause more worry and anxiety simply because we cannot see what is happening, nor can we sometimes understand why it is happening.  As the definition of pain says, it is both a physical AND an emotional experience- the two go hand in hand.

Have you ever noticed your back pain gets worse when you are stressed at work, or not sleeping well?  Have you ever noticed your back pain gets better when you’re on holiday, relaxing in the sunshine?  There is a vicious cycle that exists between pain and anxiety, which can be hard to break.

What we focus on as practitioners is addressing the factors that have led to us feeling pain. These factors can be our overall physical wellbeing, social environment, health beliefs, mental health, and social environment.  We aim to progressively increase your activity and work to restore your confidence in movement as these will all help to reduce your pain levels, and help break that vicious pain cycle and turn it into a positive experience whereby more movement and confidence means less pain.

So how do I help myself?

If we learn to view pain as a motivator to encouraging us to help our bodies, we can start to work with it to get ourselves better.

  • Exercise. Implementing strategies to encourage more physical activity will help your body release  feel-good chemicals (endorphins) which will make us feel better, blood flow to the brain increases and so our ability to function and concentrate improves, muscle strength and endurance will improve.  Remember, as you start to become more physically active, you are likely to continue to experience some pain- however, hurt does not equal harm.  With practice, and focus, normal movement will return and your pain levels will decrease.
  • Set yourself realistic goals.  As humans we often set ourselves up for failure by setting unattainable targets (New Year’s Resolutions being a prime example), and so when we do fail, we lose the motivation to try again.  Set yourself an attainable target, such as being able to walk the children to school and back within three months, or being able to hoover the lounge without sitting down. Competing in your very first triathlon in a months’ time is NOT an achievable target for everyone.
  • Take charge of your pain. Learn more about it, read around the subject, understand your condition.  By increasing your understanding and addressing your thoughts and feelings about pain, you can actually affect your own pain levels by giving yourself more control over your pain.  No health professional can take your pain away from you, you must take control.  There are a number of resources available to help you learn more:
    –  www.paintoolkit.org
    www.knowpain.co.uk
  • What is your coping strategy?  You might think that the sympathy offered to you by friends and family is helpful, but we actually know that those with a more attentive, concerned spouse/partner will report higher levels of pain.
  • If you have been prescribed help, this must make sense to you and increase your understanding of your problem.  If something does not make sense to you, ask, we are here to help.  A good clinician will help you master your situation but you must feed back to them if you do not understand what they say.
  • Research shows that if you have a good understanding of chronic pain, you can feel more in control, make better decisions in your self-management of pain, and experience less pain as a result.  Taking simple steps to increase your understanding of pain, such as reading and understanding this blog post, means you are already making a positive step to addressing and taking charge of your pain.

Download our “Understanding Pain” resource here.