Mind & Body • 5 Sep 2020

Acupuncture Provides Relief for Woman Needled by Pain

By uci_admin

Acupuncture Provides Relief for Woman Needled by Pain

By Nancy Everhart

Communications Manager

UCI University Advancement

Laguna Niguel resident Diane Magrina could barely walk. The painful tingling sensation radiated from the base of her spinal cord down the back of her legs. She couldn’t go on this way. It was time to seek medical help.

Magrina hadn’t given much thought to the occasional back pain she’d felt over the years. She threw clay on a potter’s wheel. She moved heavy art around her gallery and frame shop. She tended to her vegetable garden. If her back was bothering her, she’d take an aspirin or two and that would be the end of it.

It wasn’t until after she retired in 2008 that the back problems became more serious. In 2012, she had a spinal fusion and went on with her life, seldom bothered by back pain or discomfort. Still, she wondered whether she should have paid more attention to the small signals when she was younger.

“Things don’t show up until you get older,” she says. “I probably did more damage than I realized.”

In July 2019, Magrina attended a quilting retreat in Northern California. She returned home with a severe cold.

“I had so little energy and such a hard time breathing. All I could do was lay on the couch. By the end of August, my lower back was killing me,” she says.

By the time Magrina met UCI Health orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Yu-Po Lee, she had seen multiple physicians and been to more than 30 physical therapy appointments. She had even tried several medications for pain management under the watchful eye of Dr. Aaron Przybysz, anesthesiologist and pain management physician in the UCI Health Center for Pain and Wellness.

But, her excruciating pain remained constant. She needed options.

Przybysz suggested she meet with Lee, who confirmed that she had degenerative scoliosis, spinal stenosis and herniated discs. This type of scoliosis, sometimes referred to as adult-onset scoliosis, occurs as the spine degenerates with aging. By some estimates, it is present to varying degrees in as much as 60 percent of the population over 60.

Surgery was the best option to resolve Magrina’s pain, Lee said. But, he told her, she was not a candidate because of her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). He explained that the procedure would require her to lay on her stomach for several hours and, in that position, COPD increased her risk of breathing complications.

Magrina was relieved that Lee was committed to exploring other options with her.

His first recommendation was that she see Dr. Yae Chang, a doctor of acupuncture and oriental medicine and licensed acupuncturist at the UCI Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute.

According to Chang, people for whom surgery is not an option often explore palliative options for their pain such as acupuncture, chiropractic adjustments or physical therapy. He recalls seeing Magrina for the first time.

“She couldn’t lie down without pain and she looked very exhausted because of her condition—without hope,” says Chang. “She hadn’t had any acupuncture treatments before. She just came because her doctor referred her to me.”

Initially, Magrina says, she was somewhat afraid of the acupuncture needles, but willing to try anything to reduce the pain.

Acupuncture, according to Chang, works with the pain inhibitory system. Needles placed in specific locations are manipulated to increase neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, endorphins, encephalin, dynorphin and dopamine. These neurotransmitters send messages to the brain and are responsible for chemical actions in the nervous system that can help to manage pain.

Acupuncture has also been shown to improve blood flow around the spinal nerve, which can contribute to pain relief and speed the healing of malfunctioning or damaged tissue.

When treating patients for degenerative lumbar spinal stenosis, Chang says he typically sees 30 to 40 percent improvement on the pain scale in three to four sessions. Magrina responded even faster, he recalls.

“Her pain got much better after the first treatment. She walked in the clinic without using a cane on the second visit,” he says.

Magrina said she grew accustomed to the needles—about 10 of them placed at strategic points—and experienced very little discomfort. She was able to benefit from several acupuncture sessions before her treatment was paused due to COVID-19 precautions.

She is following a prescribed exercise routine at home until she can resume treatment.  Her cane is gone. And, she stands straight when she walks. She’s even quilting. You can see her work on display at Visions Art Museum, a contemporary quilt and textile museum in San Diego.

In fact, Magrina is so pleased with the outcome of her treatment that she has recommended acupuncture to others. She says they, too, have experienced relief from pain.

“I think it’s a miracle,” she says. “This needs to be integrated into our system. America needs to be more open to Eastern medicine and Western medicine, where you don’t need as many pills. I haven’t taken an aspirin in months.”

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