Neck pain, statistically speaking, will be experienced by nearly 50% of the global population in their adult lifetime. It can be a very painful condition, which due to how we use our necks for day to day life, can limit social and physical activities for approximately 25% or so of sufferers. Without other interventions, a certain amount of these will obtain surgery which may offer limited value and it may also restrict mobility.
Acupuncture is effective across the board for all types of pain from nearly any cause and neck pain is no exception. What differs in the approach of acupuncture, generally speaking, is the depth of the approach – treating the cause and not the symptoms. So the purpose is not so much to manage pain in a better way than opiates, for example, but to unearth the contributing factors and resolve them. While you can certainly use acupuncture to “manage” pain, and in complex cases this is at times necessary, the overarching goal is to “resolve” it.
Now aspects of the study I’m discussing today will come as no surprise to most acupuncturists, but to the public it may be interesting to see treatments for neck pain being studied that don’t touch the neck at all – or even get close to it.
Rather than trying to show the extensive value of acupuncture in the paragraphs above, my intent was to lead to a different way of thinking of how Chinese Medicine focuses on health issues – approaching the symptoms from a much deeper causative level. And due to this deeper approach, in general terms, you may end up with treatment approaches that to the layperson may seem like you are not understanding what their problem is.
In my clinical practice, patients are at times concerned – sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently – as I begin to insert many needles completely away from where they think they should go. They are concerned that I perhaps simply forgot what they were asking for help with as they cannot understand why I am not just needling around where they hurt. While there is such a thing as what we call “local” or “ashi” (“where it hurts”) needling, that is rarely, if ever, the way to truly resolve a persons condition.
Abdominal acupuncture is one such “sub-system” within acupuncture that may at times seem less intuitive (except for digestive issues, I suppose) than “body” acupuncture. In the study that I am going to explore today, researchers from the Pok Oi Hospital in Hong Kong and the School of Chinese Medicine within the Chinese University of Hong Kong set out to show the value of abdominal acupuncture for neck pain.
The researchers recruited 154 patients with neck pain ranging in age from 18 to 65 years of age and divided them into an abdominal acupuncture group and a sham abdominal acupuncture group. Treatment was provided over 6 weeks and then a 14 week followup was performed.
The treatment group received acupuncture at the following abdominal area points:
- CV 12 “Central Venter” – used for a range of stomach and spleen patterns in Chinese Medicine terms, which run the gamut of nearly all digestive issues, useful for stress related digestive issues that arise with other symptoms such as insomnia and/or anxiety.
- CV 4 “Origin Pass” – arguably one of the most important points in the body for strengthen nearly any weakness of what we call the qi, yin, yang, or blood of the body. Useful in cases of deep exhaustion, chronic fatigue, certain fertility issues, back pain, etc.
- KD 17 “Shang Bend” – generally used for tonifying the weakness involved in a range of digestive issues and/or abdominal pain.
- ST 24 “Slippery Flesh Gate” – used for what we call “rebellious qi” in Chinese Medicine which can be issues such as vomiting, reflux, etc. – but also has use in resolving what we call phlegm which is a way of describing some of the metabolic and inflammatory relationships in the digestive system to certain psychiatric conditions such as manic depression, for example.
After insertion the needles were retained for 30 minutes and a TDP “heat” lamp was applied during that time 30cm above the navel. Patients were treated 3 times each week for 2 weeks (6 total treatments).
This particular selection of points comes from the work of Dr. Zhiyun Bo. His work is explored in the english text “Mastering the Art of Abdominal Acupuncture: A concise guide to treating numerous painful conditions”.
Even for a layperson, aspects of this point protocol would seem somewhat obvious – shutting down systemic inflammatory markers via the digestive system as opposed to working to locally remove inflammation in the neck. Again, treating the root and not the symptoms.
Researchers found that this abdominal acupuncture protocol for neck pain was quite effective, finding that:
“the improvement in NPQ scores in the abdominal acupuncture group was even more significant at 14 weeks from baseline. Patients in the abdominal acupuncture group also exhibited significantly greater improvements in intensity of neck pain and a few quality-of-life measures than those in the sham abdominal acupuncture group, without any serious adverse events.”
Now during this study the patients were asked to refrain from other techniques such as tuina (Chinese medical massage), cupping, and other regular acupuncture treatments – some or all of which would be quite helpful in many circumstances. In most clinical situations you would be combining abdominal points with other body acupuncture points as well as other associated techniques as indicated by the need of the individual patient and your own clinical experience. It is valuable to keep in mind, however, that often less is more and things may not be quite what they seem…