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Yoga and Acupuncture Can Relieve Back Pain, Says New Study

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Say 'om' to say sayonara to pain? Apparently so, says new research published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

When scientists from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health analyzed clinical trials involving complementary health therapies (think: yoga, tai chi, and acupuncture), they found acupuncture and yoga ease back pain; acupuncture and tai chi lessen the blow of osteoarthritis; and relaxation techniques (meditation) keep headaches and migraines at bay (no surprise there).

This is big news considering 126 million adults experience some pain in any given year—and about a third of those people (40 million) suffer from severe pain. Ow.

Where do the healing powers stem from? Everyone has a different theory, says Houman Danesh, M.D., the director of integrative pain management at The Mount Sinai Hospital. But a few hypotheses stand out.

Yoga, for one, has a lot of cross-over with physical therapy. "There's lots of flexibility and strengthening in both," he says. Example: A physical therapist might use Cat-Cow to treat back pain.

As for acupuncture? The traditional teaching is that the practice unblocks blocked 'chi' (or energy), says Danesh. Buuuuut that definition doesn't always fly within the medical community. Here's the thing, though: Trigger point therapy—applying pressure to a point on the body to release pressure and thus pain (through something like massage)—bears striking resemblance to points used in acupuncture, he says. Another benefit? "Acupuncture relates endorphins in the brain, much like exercise does." (Psst: Ever wondered why acupuncture makes you cry?

Chronic pain, unfortunately, also tends to go hand-in-hand with issues like depression, anxiety, and stress, adds M. Fahad Khan, M.D., an assistant professor at NYU Langone Medical Center. And by relaxing both body and mind, complementary treatments help lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, he says, ultimately helping cut some of chronic pain's symptoms.

Of course, you won't be pain-free overnight. It's best to treat these practices like you would PT, says Danesh. The effect is cumulative. You'd likely need bi-weekly sessions of acupuncture for six weeks before seeing changes; and between three and six weeks of yoga to start feeling the effects, he says.

It's worth the time investment. Unlike many meds, which simply block pain, time on the mat (or under the needle) treats the underlying issue, says Danesh. And down the road, this could mean you don't need to rely on medications—at all or nearly as much. "I have personally seen people wean themselves off of pain medications by substituting the pain relief they were getting from their pain medication with relief from complementary techniques," says Khan. (Here, 5 Rx-Free Remedies for Neck and Pack Pain.) 

Just know: While there's certainly research that supports complementary medicine in the name of pain, there are also studies that suggest much of its strength boils down to a placebo effect. Your best bet? Find what works for you. And remember, just because you had acupuncture once (and maybe you don't think it works), doesn't mean that it's not for you, Danesh says.

Just as finding the right trainer or doctor is super important in hitting health and fitness goals; finding the right practitioner or instructor is key in finding relief (and fast-tracking progress). So shop around for classes or clinics that you like. Doctor's orders!

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