There is an irony when it comes to using acupuncture to treat pain…
Frequently patients who seek out acupuncture for their pain, do so as a last resort. They’ve tried everything else, from physical therapy to medications to surgery. It’s ironic because frequently acupuncture is effective in treating pain when nothing else has worked.
Pain is interesting. It has a personality. It can be acute or chronic. It can be dull or sharp, achy or stabbing, throbbing or electric. It may move around or stay in a fixed position. The pain may change with the weather, wake you up at night, or only show up after you’ve taken a walk.
Beyond having a personality, pain also has a variety of physiological causes.
- Infection which is an invasion. In this case it’s an invasion of foreign substances, such as bacteria or viruses that cause disease. These foreign substances both multiply and produce toxins, which not only make you sick, but also cause you pain.
- Inflammation which is your body’s way of removing harmful pathogens and irritating substances to promote the healing process. Whenever there is any kind of illness or injury to your body, it is inflammation’s job to help it heal and reduce infection. The problem is when inflammation sticks around, it causes pain. Frequently inflammation doesn’t clear because the source of irritation is still in place. Some examples of inflammation include tendinitis, arthritis, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. And we’re not even touching on chronic inflammation which we’ll look at in other posts.
- Ischemia is a fancy word that means the supply of blood to an area or organ has been cut off. For example, during a heart attack, the flow of blood is blocked in vessels around the heart, causing both ischemia and pain.
- Neuralgia. Your nerves transmit sensory signals from the rest of your body to your brain. When a nerve is damaged, the pain is incredibly intense and often described as electric. Examples of nerve pain include neuropathy, sciatic pain, or dental work without an anesthetic.
- Pain from entrapment or pressure occurs when a nerve or muscle gets pinched. For example, an injury to your neck can cause a spinal nerve to be pinched between two vertebrae, causing pain along the entire trajectory of the nerve. This is nerve pain, but the cause is from entrapment of the nerve.
- Stretch. If you’ve ever sprained your ankle, you know how painful it can be. That’s because stretch is in play here. In the case of your ankle, the ligaments in your foot were stretched way beyond their normal range of motion, creating a world of hurt.
- Trauma is a very common cause of pain and is pretty uncomplicated. When you fall, are in an accident, or get hit by something, it hurts. Surgery is also considered to be trauma to the body.
Acupuncture and Traditional Oriental Medicine has a long history of treating pain—
several thousand years in fact. Pain is considered to be a kind of stagnation, in which substances in the body are not flowing well. The Chinese say where there’s stagnation there is pain. Which makes sense; everything in your body needs to flow, whether it’s blood in the vessels, your digestion, fluids, nerve impulses, or your menstrual cycle. When that flow becomes blocked, pain is the result. For example, when you sprain your ankle it turns purple and blows up like a balloon. A bruise is blood that has broken out of the vessels and is not moving, and a sinus infection is phlegm blocking your sinuses.
For a practitioner of Traditional Oriental Medicine, the highest priority in treating a patient in pain is to restore flow to the area. This is done by determining the cause of the pain, as well as the source of the blockage. Practitioners takes into account the characteristics of the pain as well as the general health of the patient.
The personality of the pain a patient is experiencing gives the practitioner of Traditional Oriental Medicine not only clues as to its diagnosis, but also direction in how to treat it. For example, if the pain feels better with pressure (like a tight knot in your upper back), it is likely originating from some kind of overall depletion in your body. If a patient doesn’t want the painful area touched, the stagnation is severe. Pain that is fixed and severe also indicates strong stagnation, as opposed to pain that’s intermittent, dull, and achy. If it feels better when heat is applied, then it is a cold pain. The location of the pain also indicates what energetic pathways need to be addressed in order to determine the most effective treatment.
Under the umbrella of Traditional Oriental Medicine, treatment for pain may include acupuncture, bodywork called Tui Na, heat therapy, cupping, and possibly the use of herbs. In most cases treatment will begin with some carefully and strategically placed acupuncture needles to increase flow of energy and blood to the area of pain. In my clinic, treatments will almost always begin with the application of essential oils, even before the needles are inserted.
Whenever one talks about flow and energy when it comes to healing, skeptics are quick to discount the very real healing effects of acupuncture. The reality is that researchers all over the world have been investigating the physiological effects of acupuncture for years. Through scientific study, researchers have found that acupuncture decreases inflammation. In fact, it has been documented that white blood cells that clear inflammation increased by about 40 percent in the areas where acupuncture needles were placed.
Acupuncture also increases circulation, which could be described as restoring flow. In addition, it has been found that acupuncture exerts some very real changes that directly affect pain. It blocks the transmission of pain signals to the brain, up regulates (increases) your body’s own pain-killing opioid system, and calms you down by increasing the production of feel-good endorphins in your brain.
It’s ironic that many people come to acupuncture as a last resort to treat their pain, because in many cases acupuncture may bring relief where other options have not. The way I see it is that they have saved the best for last.