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Pain Management with Acupuncture

Traditional Chinese medicine has approached pain management with natural solutions for thousands of years with acupuncture, Chinese herbal formulas, and other treatments. Chronic pain can be unpleasant and a struggle to live with; drugs such as opiates are often prescribed in Western medicine, leading to adverse side effects and addiction. However, studies show that acupuncture can help provide pain relief and anti-inflammatory properties in both Western and traditional Chinese medicines.  

Traditional Chinese medicine approach to pain

In TCM, pain is approached depending on the root cause, called Full or Empty conditions. Depending on where the pain is and how severe the pain is will be observed. Generally, Full condition pain is sharp and intense pain, while Empty condition is dull and less intense. 

Root causes of Full condition pain

  • Invasion of exterior pathogenic factors
  • Interior Cold or Heat
  • Stagnation of Qi (energy) or blood
  • Retention of food
  • Obstruction by phlegm

Root causes of Empty condition pain

  • Deficiency of Qi and blood
  • Consumption of body fluids from Yin deficiency

You may not be familiar with these terms. Still, your acupuncturist can help you discover the root cause and explain them to you. With Full condition, the energy in your body or Qi can become blocked and will no longer circulate throughout your body, causing pain. With empty conditions, Qi stagnation is usually the common cause; other root causes of chronic pain can include stasis of blood, cold, heat, and Liver-Yang rising. 

How acupuncture helps with pain

Acupuncture helps stimulate the pathways in your body to help increase the flow of energy and blood using acupoints to help alleviate pain and tension.

Arthritis and acupuncture

Acupuncture for pain

Acupuncture has been found to help with any pain, including migraines, headaches, arthritis, and joint, shoulder, knee, neck, and back pain. Using fine needles placed into the skin at acupoints, acupuncture has been used for pain relief for centuries. 

In Western terms, acupuncture relieves pain by releasing endorphins in the body. Endorphins are our natural pain-killing chemicals and are involved with the brain chemical serotonin, which plays a role in mood. In addition, to needles – moxibustion may also be used for pain management. Moxibustion is a TCM treatment that involves burning mugwort leaves to help enhance acupuncture healing. 

According to Brian Berman, MD, director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, “There’s a lot of research that says when we put an acupuncture needle into the body, many physiological mechanisms occur.” When placed in the correct acupoints, Acupuncture needles send a signal throughout your body along the spine and into the brain, and this triggers endorphins, enkephalins that provide pain relief. In addition, acupuncture triggers the production of cortisol, a stress hormone that helps control inflammation. 

Arthritis pain

Both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are improved with acupuncture. Studies show that rheumatoid arthritis or RA symptoms such as pain, stiffness in the morning, and inflammation improved with acupuncture. Results showed that acupuncture helps cytokines (cell signaling proteins) involved in the inflammatory response – helping to reduce pain in an autoimmune condition such as RA. Osteoarthritis and joint pain treated with acupuncture have reduced both pain and stiffness. 

Back pain

Did you know that 8 out of every ten people suffer from low back pain at some time? Studies show this is the most common type of pain that people seek acupuncture for, and studies show it is very effective for chronic low back pain. Acupuncture is quite effective for chronic back pain; according to – over 22 studies show that acupuncture can help with back pain. It is considered a good option even in Western medicine.  

Knee pain

Causes of knee pain can range from an injury to arthritis resulting in reduced mobility, sleep disruptions, and decreased quality of life. Some studies show that the benefits of acupuncture for knee pain can reduce pain short term but not long term. However, in TCM, knee pain is approached differently than in conventional medicine. Combining acupuncture, moxibustion, Chinese herbs, cupping, massage, and other treatments can help you manage your knee pain. 

Headaches and Migraines

Headaches, tension headaches, cluster headaches, and migraines can be debilitating, and if they are chronic, they can affect your quality of life. Regular acupuncture can help reduce the frequency of headaches. According to studies, “The frequency of headache is dropped by 50% or more in up to 59% of individuals receiving acupuncture, and this effect can persist for more than 6 months”. The American Migraine foundation believes that at least six visits to acupuncture treatment can be beneficial to those who suffer from migraines. In addition, in TCM, other lifestyle changes may be indicated, i.e., consuming less caffeine.

acupuncture for headaches and migraines

Chinese herbs for pain management

Pain management with medication is usually the most common treatment for pain in Western medicine. In TCM, herbs, changes in diet, and lifestyle changes are used for pain relief in addition to acupuncture. 

Some popular Chinese herbs for pain include:

  • Corydalis, also known as yan hu suo, has been used traditionally for thousands of years.   Studies show that corydalis reduces both pain and inflammation in the body since this herb stimulates Qi circulation.
  • Yunnan Baiyao is a popular Chinese formula known for its first aid properties. It is beneficial to those who have had an injury or wound. Yunnan Baiyao is used to stop bleeding, decrease bruising, reduce inflammation, activate blood circulation, clear toxins, and reduce swelling.
  • Also known as Jiang Huang, turmeric alleviates pain by circulating blood and Qi and unblocking pathways.

If you are experiencing chronic pain anywhere in your body, your acupuncturist can help you discover the root cause and treat your pain naturally with acupoint needles, moxibustion, and Chinese herbs, along with dietary and lifestyle changes.