Can acupuncture help manage pain?

Pain is the main way in which our body reports damage or illness, which means that when something goes wrong we tend to experience that through pain. In some instances, this is a useful mechanism which warns us that we should probably stop what we’re doing. For example, a person who brushes against hot metal will be warned against doing so again through the mechanism of pain. In other instances however, usually where pain persists and affects our ability to function on a day to day basis, pain is a less welcome part of human biology.

Because of the role pain can play in our lives, modern medicine has devised countless methods of pain management. Whether through drugs or alternative therapies, there is a huge array of options available for anyone looking to deal with a pain problem. One of these management methods is a practice over 2,500 years old and with its roots in ancient China: acupuncture.

Pain and how it works

As mentioned briefly in the introduction to this article, pain is essentially your body’s way of warning you that something is going wrong. Pain signals are carried by special cells called pain receptors, and these can be found virtually everywhere in the body. Pain receptors vary in their density, meaning that in some parts of your body there will be a significantly larger number of pain receptors than in others. This makes certain parts of your anatomy more vulnerable to pain than others.

There are many different varieties of pain, and these are usually indicative of the causative issue. Pain can be steady or throbbing, specific to one part of the anatomy or generalised over a large area, and dull or sharp. Some conditions cause chronic pain, meaning that the sufferer experiences pain over a prolonged period of time, while other illnesses and injuries cause acute pain that is usually short lived.

Regardless of the type or cause, pain is something that no one wants to experience and everyone tries to manage as effectively as possible. The most common way of dealing with pain is probably through over the counter painkillers, and if these don’t work or if the pain is more severe, the next step is usually pain medication. There are dozens of alternatives of course, and this is where acupuncture can fit in.

Why use acupuncture to treat pain?

Perhaps one of the most widespread uses of acupuncture is the management of pain. It is estimated that about 70% of patients taking up acupuncture do so to manage pain, but why use acupuncture rather than medication?

The medical option is not always the best course of action if a person is suffering from chronic pain. Over time, the body develops a resistance to frequent medication, and in some cases, addictions can develop. This is particularly true of strong painkillers like morphine and codeine, both of which belong to the same class of compounds (opiates) as heroin.

Some people may not tolerate or respond well to drug based pain treatment. Intolerances to morphine and other strong painkillers is relatively common, particularly as their use over a protracted period of time can have some unpleasant side effects apart from the aforementioned addiction.

Alternative therapies like acupuncture offer a convenient alternative that can benefit a broad range of people looking to deal with a chronic pain problem.

How is acupuncture used to treat pain?

The practice of acupuncture dates back to ancient China, and remains an important part of traditional Chinese medicine to these days. The treatment method is based on the Chinese belief in Qi, a life energy vital to good health and long life that is transported through the body by means of vessels called meridians. According to this philosophy, disruptions on key flow cause illness, discomfort, and disease, and by replenishing the healthy flow of Qi these conditions can be treated.

When you visit an acupuncturist with the intention of dealing with a pain problem, you will first be examined and asked a range of questions to determine the nature of your condition. You should always see a doctor first to address any potential underlying conditions. Through his or her exam, your acupuncturist will determine how which acupuncture points will need to be targeted during your treatment.

Each acupuncture point corresponds to a particular part of the body according to a complex map of meridians and energy flow devised over 2,500 years of acupunctural practice. By stimulating the point relevant to a patient’s pain problem, an acupuncturist hopes to stimulate and restore Qi flow, and thereby good health.

Beyond the traditional Chinese view of Qi flow and acupuncture, Western medicine has attempted to reconcile acupuncture with a modern understanding of physiology and anatomy. Despite a range of scientific investigations into this area, there is no evidence supporting the existence of Qi or meridians. Moreover no study to date has linked the traditional Chinese meridian maps to any known physiological structures.

That being said the effectiveness of acupuncture in treating certain conditions has lent the practice credibility, and there are many theories that cast a modern light on the traditional philosophies of acupuncture. A prominent theory, for example, that is particularly relevant to pain management is that acupuncture needles trigger the release of potent, natural painkillers. These are compounds released by the ends of nerve cells in response to the appropriate stimulus, and when released provide a natural basis for pain relief.

Does acupuncture effectively treat pain?

One of the major questions surrounding acupuncture is whether or not the treatment is effective in managing pain. There are many claims surrounding acupuncture, with some practitioners across the world offering services that treat complex conditions like autism.

A wealth of investigations have been performed to determine the validity of acupuncture’s claims, and while no evidence has been uncovered to support many of acupuncture’s more radical claims, proof has been discovered to support acupuncture’s validity in treating a range of other conditions.

In the UK the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE), an organisation responsible for investigating and recommending the best treatments available, recommends acupuncture as part of the management programme for back pain. Thus far this is the only pain management therapy involving acupuncture that is recommended by NICE, which means that it is the only application of acupuncture in this area supported by evidence convincing enough for NICE to make a recommendation.

That being said there is some evidence to support acupuncture as a means of treating the pain involved in a number of other conditions including:

  • Carpal tunnel – a painful condition of the hand that stems from pressure applied over a long period of time to an important nerve in the wrist. This nerve (known as the median nerve) is central to sensation in the wrist, and a consequence of carpal tunnel is pain, tingling, and weakness of the hand.
  • Headaches and migraines: Migraines are more severe than standard headaches and have a more complicated underlying physiology. Both present with characteristic pain in the head (and sometimes neck) region, although migraines are often accompanied by nausea and other symptoms.
  • Myofascial pain syndrome: Is a chronic pain problem which affects a muscle after a trigger point has been stimulated. This condition is not only painful, but involves a weakening of the muscle affected and limitations in its range of movement.
  • Dental pain: Dental procedures can be quite painful, and acupuncture has been indicated as a potential solution to dental pain affecting individuals after a dental procedure.
  • Tennis elbow: Is known by a number of different names, but is a condition that involves a characteristic, sharp pain on the outside of the elbow.

The scientific evidence in support of acupuncture as an effective treatment for the conditions listed above is promising but unclear, and more work needs to be done to prove or disprove acupuncture’s usefulness in this regard.

There are a number of obstacles that make studying acupuncture’s effectiveness tricky from a scientific point of view, in the years to come our understanding of the treatment should continue to improve and allow us to reach more definitive conclusions about what acupuncture can and can’t do.

Ultimately it is important to remember when looking to acupuncture for pain management is that you should always consult your doctor for advice first. Your pain may be a consequence of an underlying condition which might be medically treatable. You should also ensure that your acupuncturist is qualified and trained before pursuing treatment.

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