X-rays, MRIs, and other diagnostic imaging can be essential tools in understanding what’s going on in your body and deciding what to do about it. But they might also undermine your healing process – not because of any physical risks, but because of how they might limit your thinking.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, an X-ray must be worth at least a million, in that it shapes the story we tell ourselves. If your X-ray shows you bone-on-bone arthritis, or the narrowing of the spaces in your spine, it’s really easy to jump to the conclusion that your pain is permanent: something you’ll just have to live with and that will inevitably worsen over time, unless you do something radical like have surgery.
But there are flaws in this logic. Spinal discs lose a bit of their cushiness in nearly everyone over 40, but only a fraction of the population will experience chronic back pain. Plenty of people walk around with bulging discs and are blissfully unaware of it, while others suffer intensely. So pictures can be misleading: they show correlation, but not necessarily causation. They are also snapshots of our bodies at a single moment in time. It’s easy to forget that change is possible, even at the level of bones and joints.
Take “James” (not his real name), an 86-year-old man who came to see me for acupuncture after suffering for decades with chronic lower back pain, knee pain, and numbness in his legs and feet. He walked stiffly and unsteadily with a cane, usually not much further than the mailbox at the end of his driveway, due to pain and fear of falling.
His doctor had diagnosed him with “lumbar spinal stenosis,” a narrowing of the spaces in the spine, causing compression of the nerve roots that travel to the lower body. This condition is usually considered a disease of aging: like the upholstery on an antique chair, the cushiness of the discs between the vertebrae wears out over time. He also had osteoarthritis in his back, hip, and knees, and he had all the X-rays to prove it.
At 86, he wasn’t a great candidate for back surgery, so acupuncture was his last resort. After a handful of treatments, he noticed he wasn’t reaching for his pain pills as often. This was enough evidence to keep him coming in. After a couple of months of regular acupuncture, he regained feeling in his feet to the point where he felt comfortable giving up his cane. The pain in his knees and back dropped from debilitating to next-to-nothing, allowing him to resume his old pastime of walking a few miles a day by the river instead of just to and from the mailbox. His old friends were pleasantly surprised to see him back at social events he’d been avoiding when standing had been unbearable.
About a year and half later, James went back to his doctor and had another image taken of his spine. The new X-ray showed that the spinal stenosis itself had diminished remarkably, prompting the doctor to conclude: “We must have given you the wrong X-rays. The stenosis must never have been there in the first place.” His healing was so far outside the realm of what was possible for this doctor that he flat-out refused to believe it was the same patient, despite the dramatic improvements in James’s quality of life.
It’s understandable how an acupuncture-naïve physician (or patient) could draw such a conclusion: doctors are taught to think about drugs and surgery as the two main treatment options. Many simply don’t know how powerful acupuncture can be in catalyzing the body’s own healing process, with negligible (and often positive) side effects and zero recovery time.
So before you go for that knee replacement or back surgery, or resign yourself to a life of popping pain pills (which we’re realizing are far riskier than previously believed), remember that while your X-ray may be informative, it may not tell the whole tale. Something that looks “abnormal” may or may not have anything to do with what’s causing your pain. It’s equally important to remember that the image is a snapshot capturing just one moment in time. Your body is constantly undergoing a process of rebuilding itself, and if you change the inputs to that system (supplying it with new nutrients, movements, or interventions like acupuncture) it’s reasonable to expect a different outcome. Even if you’re 86!
Certainly there are circumstances where surgery makes the most sense. But if you’re among the millions of people suffering from osteoarthritis, tendonitis, lower back pain, neck pain, disc degeneration, sciatica, muscle stiffness, or fibromyalgia — to name just a handful of ailments — acupuncture could be an excellent first choice to reduce pain and regain mobility.