While pain means suffering and misery to most, it is also a sign that your body is alerting you to pay attention. Yet many people try to cover up pain by taking drugs or simply ignoring it. While this may temporarily dull the pain, your body will continue to remind you that something is still wrong, and the pain will increase and become chronic.
Pain can slow recovery, interfere with work, sleep and eating, and cause fear, anxiety, frustration, and depression. Conventional treatment such as pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medications do not necessarily address the source of the problem and can cause adverse effects.
“Today, adverse drug reactions and drug interactions are directly responsible for thousands of deaths annually and for more than 20 per cent of all hospitalizations for adults over the age of 65.” — Statistics Canada, 1998
The Eastern view of pain
TCM views pain as a result of a blockage of the normally smooth flow of Qi through the meridians. Qi is the energy that nourishes every cell, tissue, organ, and system in the body. When it is obstructed due to injury, stress, or disease, it accumulates on one side of the blockage and is deficient on the other side. This blockage in circulation impedes the flow of blood and lymph, agitates our nerve endings, and produces our perception of pain. This pathology can be compared to the analogy of the flow of water through a river. Imagine that meridians are like rivers running throughout the body, and that pain is experienced when a dam forms in the river. Traditional meridian acupuncture techniques help open the dam and promote free-flow once again. This results in a decrease in pain, reduced inflammation and increased circulation within the joints and muscles throughout the body.
“If there is free flow, there is no pain;
If there is no free flow, there is pain.”
— Classical Chinese medical text, Nan-Jing, 2nd Century A.D.
How does Acupuncture treat pain?
Acupuncture relieves pain by moving the Qi. While this is not well understood at present by western science, medical research has shown acupuncture to be a safe and effective treatment method for pain. Traditional Chinese Medicine can address both the branch (the symptom) as well as the root (the cause) of the pain. Acupuncture is a natural, time-tested, safe, and effective way to treat pain. It is acknowledged by the World Health Organization (WHO), the National Institute of Health (NIH), the Arthritis Society, and is utilized by many pain management centres and institutes. Chinese herbs, food cures, and tui na massage can be used alone or to support acupuncture treatments. TCM doctors have used acupuncture and herbs to treat their people for thousands of years.
Acupuncture has been shown to stimulate the production of endorphins (chemicals that block pain), neutralize trigger points, relax muscles, and block the transmission of pain signals to the brain by stimulating competing nerves.
Acupuncture works by encouraging oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to flow to the affected area, facilitating the body’s natural healing response. It can reduce swelling and inflammation as well as stimulate a release of endorphins to reduce pain.
While these are important findings, they do not explain why acupuncture is beneficial long after the treatment should have worn off, especially if acupoints that treat the root of the problem are also chosen.
One major benefit to acupuncture as a complementary therapy, is that it can be used safely with other therapies such as Chiropractic, Physical Therapy, and Massage, and even including pharmaceutical drugs.
Acupuncture may be used to effectively treat the following acute or chronic pain conditions:
- Back injuries
- Post-surgical pain and complications
- Pain due to automobile accidents
- Neck tension, headaches, migraines
- Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS)
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD)
- Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Dysfunction
- Shoulder Injuries, Frozen shoulder
- Tennis elbow
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Disc injuries
- Complications from scar tissue and soft tissue damage
- Neuralgia and shingles
- Facial Pain
- Pelvic Pain
- Psychogenic pain (unexplained pain, pain in the absence of injury or disease)
What types of pain can TCM treat?
Acupuncture is an effective therapy for many different types of acute and chronic pain syndromes. It is an excellent way to provide pain relief and at the same time improve local circulation to the affected area, thereby encouraging the body to heal itself. Both acute and chronic pain can benefit from TCM treatments. Carolyn uses a combination of traditional acupuncture techniques and modern motor point needling techniques to treat pain. Motor point needling technique is a more modern approach to acupuncture; one that is rooted in western science and anatomy. It employs manual muscle testing to determine any weaknesses or dysfunctions. Needles are then inserted to stimulate the neuromuscular junction. Motor point needling corrects muscle group imbalances by encouraging tight muscles to lengthen and relax while the opposing weaker muscles are able to fire and contract more effectively.
Acute pain begins suddenly, is short-term, and is usually the result of a specific injury. An example of acute pain is seen in someone who has just sprained his or her ankle. In the event of a recent injury, x-rays can be used to determine if there is a fracture, and ice is usually applied during the first 24 hours to relieve swelling. Acupuncture and/or herbs can be used to bring down the swelling, relieve pain, and speed healing. The sooner the injury is treated, the faster the recovery.
Chronic pain is generally defined as pain that lasts longer than three months. It can have significant psychological and emotional effects as it may limit a person’s ability to function well. Chronic pain typically develops from an unresolved injury or disease process. Some people, however, experience long-term pain even in the absence of an initial injury or pathology.
Chronic pain occurs in about 11-54% (depending on age) of people, and a conventional search for treatment is unsuccessful for many, thus leading to frustration. Because TCM treats the source of the symptoms, as well as the pain itself, chronic pain is well-treated by TCM’s holistic system.
Chronic pain and the psyche
Acupuncture is also effective at addressing the emotional component of chronic pain. People struggling with chronic pain conditions often find themselves dealing with depression and mental-emotional stress. Pain can become all-consuming and may interfere with daily living as well as compromise a person’s quality of life. This becomes even more stressful if the patient as sought out conventional treatment and not gained any relief.
Validation is a term that has come to mean truth or confirmation that pain exists. Unfortunately, chronic pain can seldom be “validated” by the structural and chemical testing commonly used in our medical system. There is no pain meter to objectify the subjective experience of pain. Lack of validation is a great frustration for clients who sometimes develop pain behaviour if no one will listen to their words. Because TCM approaches each patient’s concerns individually, and formulate their diagnosis and treatment based on the patient’s signs and symptoms, the acupuncturist does not need a diagnosis or disease label to treat that patient.
Not only can Acupuncture provide both short-term and long-term pain relief, TCM successfully treat depression and other mood disorders. In fact, current research has revealed that some of the brain chemistry changes created by acupuncture are similar to those caused by antidepressant medications. Patients often report mood altering effects such as uplifted mood, stress relief, and relaxation which helps contribute to a more positive outlook of their health condition.
- Reduction of chronic non-specific low back pain: A randomised controlled clinical trial on acupuncture and baclofen