Pain relief is the most common reason why people come to our acupuncture clinic. Pain is the messenger that tells us something is wrong and needs our attention, and therefore serves a valuable function.
Acute pain usually indicates a serious problem that a physician can recognize and address. A broken bone or an infection are examples of this. Often however pain becomes chronic and remains like an unwelcome guest, long after the message has been received. Sometimes the source of chronic pain remains elusive and persists long after the initial injury or illness has passed. There is even pain that has no known cause – no injury or disease that can be measured by a lab test, MRI or CAT scan. Fibromyalgia is the ultimate example of this type of pain. In fact until recently many physicians would refer fibromyalgia sufferers to a psychiatrist, assuming that if the cause is unknown then it must be “in their head”. There are many soft tissue injuries that also defy explanation, as many of these problems stem from injuries to the fascia, a sheath of tissue that wraps all our muscles and organs and can’t be seen on X-ray or MRI. Sometimes a trauma can set up a cycle of pain that goes deeply into the central nervous system and perpetuates itself long after the tissue has healed.
Although acupuncture can be very useful for acute pain relief, this sort of pain almost always requires a visit to the doctor, or the ER if severe enough. It is the second category of pain – the chronic pain and the undiagnosed pain – that acupuncture is most useful for. The problem western medicine has with treating chronic and undiagnosed pain is that pain medicine over long periods of time can have undesired effects. For example patients with arthritis often can’t tolerate NSAIDs (drugs such as Motrin) due to their effects on the digestive system. Patients with other long standing pain are sometimes put on narcotics, which tend to become less effective over time and are of course addictive. Steroid injections into painful joints usually only offer temporary relief, and can only be done a limited number of times before side effects occur.
The beauty of acupuncture is that it utilizes the body’s own internal pain reducing mechanisms.
There are no side effects – other than the calming effect known so well to the acupuncture patient. We are commonly asked in the clinic “how does it work”, and to be honest from a western medical perspective it’s not known how. That it does indeed work was most vividly demonstrated in China when surgeries were performed on patients using only acupuncture for anesthesia, with the patient fully awake and apparently pain free during the surgery. From a Chinese medicine perspective pain is by definition a blockage of the body’s internal energetic circulation, known as “qi” (pronounced as “chee”). Acupuncture facilitates the flow of qi through these blockages, thus reducing pain. In the clinic we also use other techniques to achieve this movement of qi, such as cupping, moxibustion, and tuina, a system of Chinese massage.
Chronic pain can take a little time to conquer with acupuncture. Unlike western medicine, which seeks immediate reduction in pain through pills or injections, we typically advise the patient to try a course of ten treatments to determine if acupuncture can help. Over this time the body has a chance to respond gradually to the deep and subtle changes we hope to achieve.