Acupuncture Therapy for Pain Relief

March 21, 2017 8:00 am

acupuncture therapy needles in back

Acupuncture is a 3,000-year-old medical practice that originated as a form of traditional Chinese medicine. Stemming from the philosophies of Daoism, acupuncture aims to enhance the body’s natural ability to heal itself by stimulating specific anatomic sites called acupuncture points.

History of acupuncture

While Chinese medicine has been popularly used in Asia for thousands of years, it didn’t make its way to the United States until the 1970s. Interest in these alternative therapies from the East piqued the interest of the masses, due to the increase of prescription opioid use in the late 1900s. In 1996, the FDA classified acupuncture needles as medical devices, bringing this ancient Chinese therapy into mainstream western medicine.

Even with the FDA classification, many people remain skeptical of the efficacy of alternative treatments like acupuncture. However, a 2012 study shows that acupuncture therapy is effective in alleviating many forms of chronic pain like back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, chronic headaches, and shoulder pain.

How acupuncture works

The philosophies behind acupuncture are quite different from those of modern medicine. Ancient Chinese wisdom states that the universe is comprised of two opposing forces, yin and yang, which govern the flow of energy in everything, including the human body. The energy that flows through the body is call “qi” (pronounced chee). According to Daoist tradition, qi should be balanced in order to achieve health and well-being. However, if the energy is blocked, it disrupts the natural flow of qi, which can result in pain or illness.

As modern doctors and researchers study the effects of acupuncture on the body, we are beginning to connect the philosophies of ancient Chinese medicine to modern western medicine, but there is still a lot that we don’t know about why or how acupuncture works. According to Sarah Thompson, Dpl.OM, L.Ac., Doula at Sacred Vessel Acupuncture, acupuncture works differently in each individual depending on the form and location of pain. It’s important to have a qualified acupuncturist that can identify the proper way to treat your specific pain.

Although there is still a lot to learn about acupuncture, recent studies suggest that acupuncture needles trigger a local increase in adenosine, a neuromodulator that naturally occurs in the body. “Adenosine is a natural anti-inflammatory and pain killer,” Thompson explains.

When the acupuncture needles are placed around the source of pain, this increase in adenosine can reduce inflammation, alleviating discomfort and reducing the severity of the pain.

Modern acupuncture therapy for pain relief

Modern acupuncturists utilize the same techniques that have existed for thousands of years, which involve pricking the skin with fine, sterilized needles in specific areas of the body to alleviate a variety of conditions and illnesses. However, there are techniques that modern acupuncturists can use to enhance the effects of acupuncture such as pressure, massage, cupping, heat, electrical stimulation, and applying topical herbal medicines.

According to Acupuncture Today, there are nearly 2,000 acupuncture points on the human body that are connected by 20 different pathways or meridians. Your acupuncturist decides which acupuncture points to target based on the type of pain you are experiencing and where it is occurring in the body. In addition to being linked with alleviating chronic pain, acupuncture can also have benefits on the nervous system, endocrine and immune systems, cardiovascular system, and digestive system.

For people suffering from chronic pain, acupuncture can be an alternative therapy to help alleviate symptoms, and in some cases replace prescription medications. According to Thompson, acupuncture is most effective when accompanied by a healthy diet and proper exercise in order to reduce overall inflammation throughout the body.

What to expect on your first acupuncture appointment

“Patients shouldn’t feel pain from acupuncture needles, but might experience a mild pinching feeling,” Thompson explains.

However, throughout the treatment sensations of itching, tingling, or throbbing at the site of the needles is completely normal, and lets your acupuncturist know that the treatment is working.

While emotional responses are uncommon, they can occur during treatments, especially in patients with severe back pain, PTSD, or pent up emotions as a result of their chronic pain. Thompson says that even though this is not common, it’s actually good to allow these emotional responses to naturally surface and release. If you have never done acupuncture therapy before, expect your first visit to take 60-90 minutes, depending on your acupuncturist.

How to find an acupuncturist in Oklahoma

Acupuncture is effective and safe when done correctly by a qualified acupuncturist. However, not all acupuncturists are created equal. Unfortunately, acupuncture is not regulated by the state of Oklahoma, making it possible for acupuncturists to obtain low-quality certifications or insufficient training. Thompson recommends finding an acupuncturist through the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, a nationally regulated commission for practitioners. Typically, qualified acupuncturists have completed a three or four year degree in oriental medicine, practiced 1,000 clinical hours, and passed their board exam.

Although there has been speculation over the years as to how effective acupuncture therapy is, it is gaining traction as a viable therapy for people who suffer from chronic pain. If you are interested in trying acupuncture as a pain management therapy, consult your pain management doctor with questions or concerns.