The vast majority of my patients come to see me for one reason: chronic pain.
Neck pain is among the most common ailments I provide treatment for, and the third most prevalent type of chronic pain in the United States, according to the American Osteopathic Association. Nearly 31% of Americans suffer from recurring neck or back pain!
There are several causes of this widespread ailment, including muscle strain, nerve compression (due to bone spurs and herniated discs), accidents or injuries, and diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. Doctors are also seeing more and more of what they call “text neck.” This is recurring pain caused by the tendency to incline our necks over phones, tablets, and computers for several hours every day:
[A]s the neck bends forward and down, the weight on the cervical spine begins to increase. At a 15-degree angle, this weight is about 27 pounds, at 30 degrees it’s 40 pounds, at 45 degrees it’s 49 pounds, and at 60 degrees it’s 60 pounds. […] Can’t grasp the significance of 60 pounds? Imagine carrying an 8-year-old around your neck several hours per day. Smartphone users spend an average of two to four hours per day hunched over, reading e-mails, sending texts or checking social media sites. That’s 700 to 1,400 hours per year people are putting stress on their spines, according to the research.
The American Osteopathic Association also found that one-third of neck pain sufferers would refuse doctor-prescribed medication to manage chronic pain, over concerns that they might become addicted. Where does this leave the thousands of Americans who cannot (or choose not to) use Western medicine for recurring neck pain?
Luckily, a combination of acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine – TCM – has been used to successfully treat chronic neck pain for centuries. One Chinese herbal remedy is Notopterygium Root, which is known as qiang huo in Chinese pinyin. Qiang huo has long been used in Chinese herbal formulas because it “homes” to the upper spine and neck, opening the area and allowing for release of constraint and greater freedom of movement.
Qiang huo is also considered a foundational herb in the Chinese medicine specialty of Wai Ke. Wai Ke’s focus on external medicine makes use of kudzu, or ge gen. This is another popular choice in Chinese herbal medicine, because it orients a formula to the upper spine and neck area. Ge gen is very effective for neck pain, and was even found to relieve cluster headaches in a recent Yale study. Both qiang huo and ge gen are known to reduce inflammation, and also work as analgesics to ease neck pain.
You may already be familiar with a couple of herbal remedies for pain: menthol and camphor. If you’ve ever tried Bengay or Icy Hot, you’ve made use of these common substances. Did you know that they can also be taken on their own? Simply rub one of them into the skin of the affected area to increase blood flow and soothe aching muscles.
As an adjunct to smart lifestyle modifications for pain management – like posture adjustment and herbal treatments – you may also want to try acupuncture. A 2015 review lead by researchers at a Canadian university found that, in the short-term, “acupuncture is more effective than inactive treatment for relieving pain.”
This is because stimulating certain points along the body triggers your own self-healing mechanisms, and relieves any built-up pressure that might be causing your pain. When these blockages in your body’s vital pathways, or meridians, are opened up, you can more easily return to a healthy and dynamic balance. After an acupuncture session, many of my patients report not only immediate pain reduction – as was observed in the Canadian study – but a profound sense of relaxation. If there’s one thing that will always make chronic pain worse, it’s stress.
So, while having chronic neck pain is… well, a pain in the neck, acupuncture can make a significant difference. Chinese medicine offers a wide range of herbal treatments that can also reduce inflammation and pain. A licensed acupuncturist or licensed practitioner of Oriental medicine can help develop a plan that is customized just for you.
This post was updated on July 31, 2016