How Does Acupuncture Work For Pain Relief? How Does It Encourage Healing?

Posted by on Jan 9, 2014 in Acupuncture, Blog, Injuries, Pain, Sports Medicine

These are great questions that patients ask me all the time. I have treated hundreds of people for pain conditions ranging from post-operative pain to sports injuries to back pain, headaches and even stomach and digestive pain.

The type of acupuncture that I practice emphasizes immediate results meaning the goal is to change the perception pain during the treatment. Many patients are shocked when they lay on the table and after a few needles their pain is gone. In my opinion this is the best way to practice as it provides immediate feedback as to whether the treatment is working.

Acupuncture works for pain because:

1. There is a general pain relieving aspect to acupuncture as evidenced by studies using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). This is due to an inhibitory effect on the nervous system (which includes the brain) and a modulatory effect on the hypothalamus and other glands of the endocrine system which helps to secrete endorphins (natural painkillers).[1]

2. Acupuncture can target the exact tissue that is damaged or under duress. It works best when the exact injury is understood and it can specifically target the affected tissue. [2] Pain is not a well understood phenomenon and is caused not just by tissue damage, but by a variety of factors including sensation (nociception), emotional state, and general psychological affect. [3] When I practice I am constantly on the lookout for what are called pain generators. These are areas of the body that are responsible for pain. Oftentimes the pain someone is feeling is caused by a pain generator in another part of the body. An example of this is when someone is experiencing numbness or tingling in the fingers or hands. Many times this is caused by a spasmed scalene muscle in the neck that is impinging on a nerve. Other times pain generators are trigger points which refer pain to a different area of the body.

3. It decreases inflammation and helps to restore physiological homeostasis.[4] The mechanisms by which Acupuncture decreases inflammation are not fully understood but are numerous. Simply put when the body is experiencing chronic pain the nervous system is stuck in a particular pain pattern. Acupuncture can interrupt that pain pattern and over several treatments the body gets used to a new non-pain pattern. I recommend this excellent article by Chris Kresser which does the best job I’ve seen of explaining the different mechanisms by which Acupuncture decreases pain.

4. It increases circulation to the affected tissues. If you’ve ever sprained your ankle you know that it can swell up like a balloon. This is to immobilize the joint so the body can heal. After a few days the ankle will begin to turn purple with blood that is literally stuck in the area of injury. It is advantageous for the body if circulation (especially capillary micro-circulation) is increased. Electro-Acupuncture which involves attaching low voltage electric current to the needles has been shown to significantly increase micro circulation and aid in the healing process.

In summary Acupuncture modulates the entire body including several systems such as the nervous, endocrine, immune, cardiovascular and digestive. Of course there is no such thing as an individual “system” separate from the rest of the body and it is this holistic view that makes Acupuncture such an effective mechanism for healing.

 

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[1] http://abcnews.go.com/Health/acupuncture-work-pain/story?id=17204118
[2] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12202090
[3] http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-chaotic-life/201011/what-causes-pain
[4] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1781596/

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