Acupuncture for Neck and Shoulder Pain: Is It Any Better Than Conventional Treatment?


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This article is evidence-based, verified by Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Neck and shoulder pain is one of the most typical types of pain people experience on a day to day basis.  

In fact, of all adults, 70% experience a different type of neck pain that interferes with their daily routine. For shoulder pain, the prevalence rate can go as high as 70%. That means that everyone of age has experienced at least one type of shoulder pain. The chances of it reappearing again are 25%, statistics show. Simply put, no one is exempt.  

Whether it is from worn joints, muscle tension, broken cartilage, or anything else, shoulder and neck pain can disperse, taking the form of spasms and stiffness.  

For more serious and reoccurring pain, patients rely on pain medications to soothe the symptoms. However, these types of drugs often go hand in hand with unwanted side effects. From constipation to nausea, trouble breathing, and vomiting, the list can go on and on. 

Recently, holistic alternative treatments have become incredibly popular. Many people have been turning their attention to healthier alternatives, something that can be equally effective as pain medication, but without the bad side effects. Acupuncture is one of them. 

Acupuncture has long been an acknowledged treatment method for both acute and chronic pain. According to Mayo Clinic, it’s a key component in managing all kinds of pain, even the one caused by stress.  

In this article, we will analyze all the statistical research and studies of acupuncture for neck and shoulder pain.  

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How Do Neck and Shoulder Pain Affect Quality of Life? 

According to the National Institutes of Health, neck and shoulder pain are a public health concern.  

For anyone in their productive years of life, these types of pain can have a drastic impact on their overall health since it can interfere with their social, psychological, and physical functioning.  

Depending on the severity of the pain, it can affect a person’s daily life on a different level. For the most severe cases, it can be a debilitating and disabling pain, which can aggregate in patients with chronic diseases or a weak immune system.  

Why Acupuncture? 

Acupuncture has been around for more than 2,500 years. Theories suggest this type of ancient Chinese practice can stimulate biochemical changes in the central nervous system and locally in specific areas of the body.  

These changes are meant to restore the flow of energy (Qi) in the entire body by unblocking the meridians and establishing normal pathways.  

Even though there isn’t any research to confirm the existence of meridians or Qi, there are plenty of studies that can confirm the effects of acupuncture for treating neck and shoulder pain.  

Is It Just a Placebo? 

This highly complex ancient treatment raised many questions over the years. Due to its nature, it proved very difficult to study the full effect of the treatment in different patients. Generally, the placebo effect is a key component in all therapeutic interventions.  

In one particular NCBI study published in 2015, several statistical analysis stated that acupuncture was indeed just a powerful placebo. But, further research showed that traditional acupuncture had a much greater effect than just a placebo. 

Based on the trials, traditional acupuncture used a different set of mechanisms. For example, there are different types of acupuncture, like electro, auricular, magnets, etc. The traditional, or Verum acupuncture, activates the brain and nervous system with a completely different pattern, resulting in a more powerful effect.  

Of course, multiple factors can influence the placebo effect, which can range from patient-therapist communication to patient expectations. But, the research did prove that sham acupuncture created a much stronger placebo effect than a placebo pill, which shows how effective the treatment can be in managing pain. 

How Effective Is Acupuncture Compared to Conventional and Other Complementary Therapies? 

Acupuncture provides a much more effective and instant pain relief than analgesic injections, recent research states. 

To compare the effects of acupuncture with conventional and other therapies, researchers analyzed almost 6,000 patients with a history of non-oncological pain to see how well the treatment will soothe the symptoms.  

By the end of the research, the overall success rate was 79.7%, reaching as high as 93%. The pain intensity decreased from 5.5 to 2.5, which is more than 50%. This proves just how effective it can be as an only treatment option. 

Where Are Acupuncture Needles Inserted for Neck and Shoulder Pain? 

Acupuncture points exist all around our bodies. They are specific areas responsible for the normal flow of Qi.  

Every point has a strategic role. The needles are inserted into these specific points in various depths, depending on the health problem you are dealing with. The treatment involves three-needle methods

  • Insertion 
  • Manipulation  
  • Removal 

When the thin needle is inserted into an acupuncture point, it creates a slight discomfort. For a typical neck or shoulder treatment, the therapist can use from 5 to 20 needles. After the insertion, the needle is often twirled to create a mild electrical pulse and heat on the affected area. After 10-20 min, the needle is removed.  

The stiff neck is usually the result of damaged cervical soft tissues. The tissues prevent the normal circulation of blood and Qi from getting to the meridians.  

For shoulder pain, the needles are spread in the upper section of the arm and around the shoulders. During sham treatment, they can be inserted in the lower leg. While for neck pain, the needles can be inserted in areas all across the body, not just the neck. Depending on the cause of the neck pain, the therapist determines in which acupuncture point to insert the needle. 

The primary goal of acupuncture is to relieve the spasms, and that can be achieved by activating the meridians and restoring the flow of Qi. Take a look at the diagram below. 

Acupuncture for Neck and Shoulder Pain: Is It Any Better Than Conventional Treatment?
Acupuncture for Neck and Shoulder Pain: Is It Any Better Than Conventional Treatment?

Image Source: Herbal shop

These are all acupressure points meant for relieving the tension in the neck and shoulders. Each location has its own name and role to play. The therapist, these locations, depending on the type of pain you experience. The aim/purpose of each point is as follows: 

  • Point “A” – The Drilling Bamboo 

Role: Relieving eye strain, neck pain, sinus issues, headaches, hey fever. 

  • Point “B” – The Wind Mansion 

Role: Sooths stiffness in the shoulders and neck, relieves the pain in the throat, ears, eyes, nose. It helps with vertigo and headaches.  

  • Point “C” – Gates of Consciousness 

Role: Soothes the migraines, arthritis pain, headaches, neck pain, stiffness in the neck, restores one’s coordination.  

  • Point “D” – Window of Heaven 

Role: Treating shoulder and neck pain, soothing stiffness, and headache. 

  • Point “E” – The Heavenly Pillar 

Role: Soothes the stiffness in the neck, stress, headache, and eyestrain.  

  • Point “F” – The Shoulder Well 

Role: Treats the tension in the shoulders, relaxes the area, deals with the irritability and discomfort. 

What to Expect After Sessions? 

Acupuncture is used to promote the body’s own self-healing properties. While it’s a safe treatment without any serious side effects, post-session, people should expect

  • Exhaustion 
  • Soreness 
  • Twitching muscles 
  • Bruising 
  • Lightheadedness 

Some patients can feel completely drained after a session. Their body could be depleted from energy, and they need to rest. This can happen, especially for those who’ve never tried a treatment like this before. The physical and emotional release can drain the system.  

Also, after the needles are removed, the spot can feel sore. For the feet and hands, this is a common problem. But, after 24h, the soreness typically dissipates on its own.  

Plus, as a result of a hematoma, some patients can experience bruising. On some occasions, no matter how thin the needle is, patients can experience some bruising. Sensitive skin is vulnerable to bruising.   

Safety and Precautions 

The WHO regards acupuncture as a safe treatment method if it’s carried out by an experienced, professional, and licensed therapist. But, it’s still important to take the right precautions and know the safety concerns.  

Some risks include: 

  • Injury 
  • Bleeding 
  • Infection 
  • Fainting 
  • Dizziness 
  • Nausea 

Patients who take blood thinners, have a bleeding disorder, or must wear a pacemaker, are advised to stay away from this treatment.  

Conclusion 

Acupuncture has much more potential for treating neck and shoulder pain than people realize. While it’s not an “all-out” cure, it’s a solid method that can make life more comfortable. Countless studies have supported the effects of this treatment, which shows how beneficial it can actually be for those with acute or chronic pain.  

Click here to read about how acupuncture can help with sciatica

Click here to read about how acupuncture can help people with autism spectrum disorder

Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Dr. Ahmed Zayed, MD, holds a baccalaureate of Medicine and Surgery. An avid contributor to the Huffington Post and Chicago Tribune, Dr. Zayed believes in providing accurate and accessible information to general readers. With years of writing and editing content in the medical niche, Dr. Zayed likes to think of himself as a man with a mission, keeping the internet free of false medical information.

References 

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