“If there is free flow, there is no pain,
If there is pain, there is no free flow.”
– Traditional Chinese Medicine axiom
As a Licensed Acupuncturist, I treat numerous cases of pain issues in my private practice, including, but not limited to: back pain, shoulder pain, neck pain, and knee pain. Unfortunately, the list of physical pain we can experience is a long one!
In fact, pain management is one of the main reasons primary care physicians, pain management doctors, physiatrists, chiropractors, and physical therapists refer patients to me.
How does Acupuncture reduce pain and inflammation?
First, some Acupuncture 101:
- Acupuncture is a component of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that originated in China over 2,000 years ago.
- It is based on the understanding that living beings have a vital energy, life force, or “Qi”, which circulates through the twelve invisible energy lines, known as meridians, on the body.
- Each meridian is associated with a different organ system.
- An imbalance of the flow of Qi throughout a meridian is how dis-ease begins.
- Acupuncturists insert needles into specified points along meridian lines to influence, and restore, balance to the flow of Qi.
To understand how acupuncture reduces pain, we need to understand how pain is created, on a Chinese Medicine level:
When we experience imbalance in our meridians, it causes Qi stagnation and blockage, creating pain on physical, emotional, and spiritual levels. The organ that is most involved, and out of balance, when our Qi is blocked is the Liver.
The Liver governs the free flow of Qi. “When this function is normal, qi dynamic is smooth and regular, so that qi and blood remain in harmony, the channels are kept free, and the organs all function normally. When it is impaired, qi dynamic is disturbed and a whole variety of diseases may arise as a result. …Impairment of free coursing can lead not only to disturbances of qi dynamic and secretion and discharge of bile, but also to emotional disturbances such as mental depression, rashness, impatience, and irascibility.” (Fundamentals of Chinese Medicine, Nigel Wiseman and Andrew Ellis, pp. 64-65.) This is one of the reasons why physical and emotional pain are so closely linked!
The Liver also governs the sinews, or tendons. So, when the Liver blood is functioning normally, Blood and Qi are reaching the sinews, enabling them to move normally. When the Liver Blood is unbalanced, the sinews become contracted and constricted, causing pain.
Sometimes when the Liver Yang Qi gets stirred up so much while it’s unbalanced, it can create what’s considered Wind and Heat conditions.
In terms of physical issues, Wind conditions, as well as Heat conditions that can create Wind conditions, show up as tremors, convulsion, dizziness, rigidity in the neck or shoulders, and can also result in headaches.
Dampness is also considered a cause of dis-ease. Dampness can be caused internally when the Spleen mechanism fails to move and transform fluids. Spleen health is related to digestive health, and so it makes sense that when the gut is healthy, the Spleen is, as well. However, when the Qi mechanism of the Spleen is deficient, digestive issues result (bloating after eating, diarrhea, constipation, gassiness, etc.) And, what happens when the Qi isn’t flowing? You guessed it! Dampness can result.
Dampness feels heavy. So, a patient with dampness may complain of physical fatigue, heavy, cumbersome limbs, heavy-headedness, aching joints that are hard to bend and stretch, and physical pain that is worse when it’s raining or extremely humid outside.
Overall, anytime the Qi is out of whack in the body, physical pain is a common result.
How acupuncture relieves your pain and inflammation:
Our bodies are so wonderfully complex, and describing all 12 organs/meridians/channels, 8 extraordinary vessels, 6 excesses and causes of disease, as well other aspects of Chinese Medicine, is tempting. But, I will spare you the theory that could fill (and have filled!) tomes, and instead give you a snippet of how acupuncture addresses it.
On a Chinese Medicine level, much of the pain we create in our bodies is due to our Qi being blocked or stagnated in one organ system. Or, as is more often the case, in more than one organ system.
So, the remedy? Move the Qi!
When we move the Qi with acupuncture, flow is restored in the body. (click to tweet)
As the Traditional Chinese Medicine axiom goes, “If there is free flow, there is no pain, if there is pain, there is no free flow.”
And, acupuncture – as well as other Chinese Medicine healing modalities such as tui na, cupping, gua sha, and moxa – does that quite effectively and gracefully, treating all of you – Body, Mind, and Spirit!
When patients come to see me get relief from pain and inflammation, I first do a full consultation and evaluation, followed by a full treatment that includes one or more of the following: acupuncture, e-stim, tui na, essential oil therapy, and herbs.
The result? More ease in the body, as well as the mind!
How does Western science explain acupuncture’s effectiveness in reducing pain and inflammation?
There are various clinical trials out there that confirm the efficacy of acupuncture for pain management.
One of the more significant studies was done by Memorial Sloan Kettering researcher Andrew Vickers. In a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, he and his colleagues determined that acupuncture is an effective treatment for chronic back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, shoulder pain, and headaches.
Here are some of the Western science mechanisms and studies behind acupuncture’s effectiveness:
- Acupuncture releases pain-killing biochemicals, such as endorphins, or releases immune system cells to specific body sites. Evidence suggests that acupuncture points are strategic conductors of electromagnetic signals. And, stimulating these points signals the flow of endorphins at a greater-than-normal rate. I often add electric stimulation (or “e-stim” for short) to create an even more effective treatment in cases of pain management. E-stim involves using electric current to stimulate acupuncture points on the body. In one study, acupuncture with e-stim was found to accelerate the release of specific endorphins, stating, “2 Hz accelerates the release of enkephalin, beta-endorphin and endomorphin, while that of 100 Hz selectively increases the release of dynorphin”.
- Acupuncture affects the brain’s ability to regulate pain, and alters brain chemistry in a positive way. Using brain imaging, a University of Michigan study found that traditional Chinese acupuncture affects the brain’s long-term ability to regulate pain. Their findings show acupuncture acts as more than a placebo, and can activate receptors in the brain that process and dampen pain signals. This is because acupuncture changes the release of neurotransmitters (biochemical substances that stimulate or inhibit nerve impulses) and neurohormones (naturally-occurring chemical substances that can change the structure or function, or impact the activity of, a body organ).
- Acupuncture activates our body’s natural opioid system. There is considerable research supporting the claim that acupuncture releases opioids, which are synthetic or naturally-occurring chemicals in the brain that may reduce pain or induce sleep. The anti-pain chemical is a chemokine called CXCL10. Acupuncture stimulates its expression which, thus, reduces pain and inflammation by activating natural opioids in the body. In a study of e-stim on inflammatory pain, conducted by Dr. Ying Wang, a medical scientist at the University Hospital of Wuerzburg, Germany, researchers found “a novel function of the chemokine CXCL10–as a regulator for an increase of opioid-containing macrophages and antinociceptive mediator in inflammatory pain and as a key chemokine regulated by electroacupuncture.”
- Acupuncture regulates the sympathetic nervous system, by stimulating the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland. The hypothalamus and pituitary glands are responsible for many body functions, and are joined at the base of the brain. The hypothalamus activates and controls part of the nervous system, the endocrine processes, and many bodily functions, such as sleep, regulation of temperature, and appetite. The pituitary gland supplies some of the body’s needed hormones. In a study that measured the hypothalamus and amygdala response to acupuncture stimuli in carpal tunnel syndrome, it was concluded that, “[t]he functional connectivity found between the amygdala and hypothalamus suggests that a coordinated limbic response to acupuncture stimuli may underlie the efficacy of this controversial healing modality.”
Now that you know the Chinese Medicine and Western Medicine backgrounds on how and why acupuncture helps to relieve pain and inflammation, I’d like to hear from you!
How has acupuncture helped you ease pain in your body?
Please let me know in the comments, below!
In ease and light,
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