Chronic pain is a common problem, caused by many conditions. These include osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, back pain and joint pain. Other popular causes are chronic headaches and migraines.
Pain is one of the most common reasons people visit their doctors and one of the most common reasons people receive acupuncture treatment. Acupuncture is a branch of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), used in China and East Asia for thousands of years.
According to TCM theory, acupuncture works by influencing something called qi. Qi (pronounced “chee”) is a word difficult to translate into English but is usually described as “life force” or “energy.”
Qi flows around the body in invisible channels called meridians. These meridians carry qi between the internal organs and the surface of the body.
Visualize water flowing through a river. When the meridians are healthy, qi flows freely, allowing it to reach the whole body and nourish all the organs, muscles and tissues.
Like a river, when the meridians are not healthy, they cannot flow for any of the following reasons:
- A blockage caused by an injury
- Not enough available qi
- Poor diet
- Unhealthy lifestyle
When qi does not flow, disease or pain occurs.
Along the meridians are special points where you can access and influence the flow of qi. Acupuncture works by inserting a very fine needle at these points. This improves the flow in the meridians and relieves pain. The needle is stimulated so the patient feels a sensation called de qi. This ranges from a pleasant warm feeling to a dull ache and should not be painful.
Western Pain Management vs. Acupuncture
In western medicine, acupuncture may seem strange. We now know pain is controlled by the central nervous system. A pain signal is sent from the affected area of the body to the brain. This involves a complicated reflex action through the nerves and combines electrical impulses and special chemical messengers called neurotransmitters.
This is a far cry from the idea of qi and meridians. Or is it?
You could view the meridians as a communications system and qi as the message. In this way, TCM theory is similar to our understanding of pain today.
From a scientific perspective, acupuncture relieves pain in many ways. First, it stimulates nerves in the area around the acupuncture point. This causes the body to release many chemicals including endorphins.
Endorphins are the body’s natural “feel good” chemicals. They create a feeling of general well-being and relieve pain. Acupuncture also affects the areas of the brain associated with pain, reducing activity in these areas and relieving discomfort. It also releases tension in local muscles and reduces inflammation. Finally, acupuncture is relaxing, calms the mind and helps to break the pain-stress cycle. The pain-stress cycle is a common problem for people who suffer from chronic pain.
Acupuncture As Pain Management
When people suffer from pain over a prolonged period, it becomes stressful. Perhaps they have to give up work or constantly cancel plans because of their condition, resulting in feelings of depression, guilt and low self-esteem.
These emotions can have a knock-on effect on the nervous system, meaning over time, the symptoms of pain become worse. The more pain people experience, the more stressed they become. The more stressed they become, the more pain they experience. Breaking this cycle with a treatment like acupuncture can be a lifeline.
Another major problem for people who suffer from chronic pain is drug dependence. Many medications commonly used to treat pain are addictive. People can rely on these drugs to deal with their pain. Sometimes they can even suffer withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking them.
Acupuncture does not cause these problems. It is not addictive and can help people come off their pain medications more easily.
Is Acupuncture Safe?
Acupuncture is a very safe treatment. It does not cause any of the unpleasant side effects other pain medications may cause and is safe for children, the elderly and pregnant women.
Acupuncture is a holistic treatment, aiming to treat the root cause of a disease. During the first treatment, acupuncturists will take a full medical history. They will ask about the patient’s past and present symptoms, lifestyle and diet.
This helps them create a detailed picture of how the patient’s body works. They want to know where the pain is coming from and how they can treat it best. Sometimes you get an added bonus with acupuncture. Problems other than the main complaint often are addressed, too.
Acupuncture restores balance to the whole body, benefits your physical and emotional health, improves your sleep and mood, and promotes a sense of general well-being. And of course, it can relieve pain.