Acupuncture is a powerful treatment option for those suffering from chronic pain. Acupuncture is still largely foreign to our culture, so many people are curious about the basics: Does it work? How does it work? What can I expect from the experience? Read on to learn more about acupuncture and pain, and how you or your loved ones may benefit.
What is Chronic Pain?
Chronic pain is commonly described as pain persisting for 12 weeks or more. In contrast, acute pain refers to short-term pain immediately following an injury, such as from trauma or surgery. Pain is actually a useful function, signaling the body to avoid further injury and allow the injury to heal. Acute pain typically resolves with the cause of the pain. Chronic pain may initially begin due to an injury or illness or perhaps for unknown reasons that cannot be diagnosed. This persisting pain lasts beyond the typical healing time, for months or often years. According to the National Institute of Health, 76 million Americans suffer from chronic pain.
Acupuncture for Chronic Pain: Does it work?
Acupuncture, a 2,500 year-old therapy of Chinese medicine, treats a wide variety of conditions, from digestive disorders to infertility to insomnia and more. Our modern healthcare and research communities have been particularly interested in its application in the treatment of chronic pain. As clinical trials and data have amassed, it is increasingly clear by modern research standards that acupuncture is an effective treatment for pain.
A recent study published in the Archive of Internal Medicine analyzed data from nearly 18,000 participants in 29 well designed clinical trials concerning acupuncture for the treatment of chronic pain, including the common conditions of back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, chronic headache, and shoulder pain. The researchers concluded that acupuncture is an effective form of treatment, with results superior to the control groups. Those receiving acupuncture experienced a 50% reduction in pain levels.
How Does it Work?
Surprisingly, there is no current consensus in the scientific community on the mechanism of action in the clinical effectiveness of acupuncture, though many complex biomedical effects have been observed in various studies. These include effects on the nervous system, including local effects at the needle site and in the central nervous system in the brain and spine. They also include effects on the circulatory system, modulating the circulation of blood locally and throughout the body. Significant effects along connective tissue planes have also been observed.
Chinese Medical Perspective
From a Chinese medical perspective, pain can be understood simply as a stagnation or blockage in the healthy movement of blood and qi in the body. Qi is a vast and fundamental concept in Chinese culture, but in this context can be understood as functional life energy, that which signals, catalyzes, moves, transforms, etc. The goal of the acupuncturist is to restore the proper coursing of qi and blood, particularly through regions of pain and related areas, but also to treat the root cause of the pain. With acute pain, the cause is often an obvious event of injury, and our role is largely to speed the healing process. In the case of chronic pain, there is often an underlying imbalance or deficiency that can be addressed in order to the help the patient find lasting relief.
What to Expect as a Patient of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine
Practitioners of classical Chinese medicine, such as Heart Spring Health’s Kalle Skurla, LAc, call upon a highly sophisticated and time-tested system of diagnosis and treatment. She will determine your Chinese medical diagnosis using refined observation and palpation skills: feeling the quality and nuances in your pulse, looking at the color, shape and coating of your tongue, and palpating the regions of the body related to your pain condition. She will inquire about your history of health and the current quality of your digestion, sleep, mood, and other aspects of your daily experience. Treatment is consequently highly individualized, addressing the whole person rather than isolated symptoms. Other modalities of Chinese medicine, such as cupping, bodywork and herbal prescription, may be used to optimize the efficacy of the treatment. Patients will often notice improvements in their overall health and sense of wellbeing while working toward resolving their pain condition.
A course of treatment often varies in length based on an individual’s condition and their response to treatment. As a general rule of thumb, the older the condition is, the longer it will likely take to heal, but there are always exceptions. It is common to begin with weekly treatments for 6-12 weeks, and to subsequently lessen the frequency of treatments as improvement occurs.
Kalle Skurla, LAc is a Licensed Acupuncturist and graduate of The National College of Natural Medicine. She helps her patients find lasting relief from a variety of chronic pain conditions with acupuncture and other Chinese medicine modalities, and through collaborating with other practitioners of the Heart Spring Health team to provide a full spectrum of mutually supportive care. Learn more about Kalle.