What You Need to Know About Pain and Acupuncture

A couple of weeks ago, I hurt my neck doing absolutely nothing. Seriously, I turned my head in a weird way, and where there was nothing a moment before, I suddenly had a sharp, nagging pain that stayed with me for several days. It took some heat, a little acupuncture, and some rest, and I was pain-free in about four days. Looking back now, however, I’m left wondering what was that all about?

acupuncture for back painI realize that when I write about my cranky neck, I really have nothing to complain about. Many, many people have severe pain and struggle, sometimes for years, trying to manage that pain.

-There are many underlying causes of pain. Among them are inflammation, infection, and trauma. Ischemia, which is pain caused by a lack of oxygen to the tissue (as in the case of a heart attack) is also a cause of pain. Stretching of tissues of vessels is also a source of pain, such as the dilation of blood vessels associated with migraine headaches. Degeneration can also trigger pain. For example, the degeneration of nerves, most commonly in the feet, is the cause of neuropathy.

-Pain can show up someplace in your body away from its source. For example, a common symptom of a heart attack is pain in your left arm or jaw. This kind of traveling pain is called referred pain.

-In Chinese medicine, pain has two primary causes, stagnation or depletion. Pain caused by stagnation occurs because the natural flow of blood, nutrients, and energy (called Qi) has been interrupted. For example, a sprained ankle hurts like a beast. That’s because it bruises and blows up to about twice its normal size. It’s clear that the flow of just about everything in the area is inhibited which is causing you pain. Yes, the trauma and inflammation of rolling the ankle is the underlying cause, but in Chinese medicine, it’s the stagnation that must be treated for the ankle to heal. Depletion, on the other hand, is pain caused by some kind of lack—usually energy.  For example, pain associated with chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, and low-grade chronic headaches tends to be of the depletion type.

-In Chinese medicine, understanding the source of your pain means understanding the personality of the pain itself. For example, is it sharp and stabbing, burning, achy, or electric? Is it chronic or acute? Do you have it all the time? Does it like you to touch it or not? What activities make it worse/better? Does it feel better when you ice it or heat it? A clear diagnosis involves knowing exactly what kind of pain you are dealing with.

-Acupuncture can be an effective treatment for some types of pain, but most people suffering from pain cross their fingers, give it a try and hope it works without really knowing why it might help. Based on research of physiological changes during acupuncture, here are a few explanations:

  • Acupuncture alters the chemistry of your brain. In terms of pain, it increases your body’s own pain-killing chemicals. In addition, acupuncture increases the circulation of feel-good endorphins in your brain—the chemicals associated with the high in runner’s high.
  • At the site where an acupuncture needle is placed locally in your body, there is an increase in the circulation of white blood cells by about 40 percent. Your white blood cells are the ones tasked with clearing inflammation—and in most cases where there is pain, there is inflammation.
  • Acupuncture also controls pain by chemically reducing the pain signals getting to your brain.
  • Remember that stagnation is a cause of pain in Chinese medicine? A common and intentional effect of acupuncture is to increase circulation both in the area of pain and throughout your body.
  • We know that stress affects just about everything in your body and absolutely aggravates pain. In fact, people who are suffering from pain become emotionally affected by that pain. Because it can affect your brain chemistry for the better, acupuncture is a very effective way to find calm and reduce stress, thereby helping to alleviate pain.
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