Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine that is becoming more widespread as a treatment for both chronic and acute pain. This technique is over 2,000 years old and involves inserting hair-thin needles into specific points on the body to release qi (energy) that has stagnated and caused pain or illness.
Western medicine has looked for more evidence of its efficacy and has found it. Recent research has found that acupuncture stimulates pathways in rats that mimic the pathways in humans that respond to pain drugs. This breakthrough research adds more evidence that acupuncture can help treat chronic pain in many different ways.
1. Head pain
Those patients who used acupuncture as part of their treatment of head pain, including headaches ranging from moderate to severe and either acute or chronic, found that they had fewer headaches that were less severe and of shorter duration.
2. Neuropathic pain
Neuropathic pain is a pain condition usually caused by tissue damage. This damage may cause pain signals to be sent throughout the body and can result in widespread pain conditions such as fibromyalgia. Acupuncture may help increase blood flow to the area of the tissue damage, which can promote healthy healing and potential regeneration of healthy tissue. A small study of patients with neuropathic pain due to chemotherapy found that a significant majority of study participants found their pain greatly reduced after receiving acupuncture.
Osteoarthritis is a degenerative wear-and-tear form of arthritis that causes inflammation and pain in affected joints. The larger joints of the body, such as the hip, can be particularly affected because this joint supports so much weight and is a crucial part of all movement (even sitting). A 2011 study found that acupuncture helped relieved pain in almost 75% of the people who utilized this therapy for mild to moderate hip pain. One of the best parts about this treatment is that it is one of the least invasive and most safe treatments for this type of pain. There is no downtime after treatment, few if any side effects, and no risk of drug interactions or interference with other treatments.
4. Neck pain
A new study is confirming that acupuncture, sometimes in combination with posture exercises called the Alexander Technique, is actually able to offer long-term relief of chronic neck pain. The University of York Health Sciences conducted a trial study of 517 patients. The study, called Alexander Technique Lessons and Acupuncture Sessions (ATLAS), found that after a year of treatment, those in the acupuncture and Alexander Technique groups found their pain reduced by 32% and 31% respectively, in comparison to a 25% reduction in pain for those receiving traditional care. The most intriguing part of this study is that pain relief appeared to be long-lasting, in sharp contrast to other types of treatment for neck pain which may be fleeting.
5. Back pain
One of the most astonishingly successful uses of acupuncture is for back pain. A 2012 meta-analysis of studies that involved a total of almost 18,000 patients found decreases in pain in statistically significant measures, with many patients reporting a drop in pain levels from a 60 to a 30 (on a scale of one to 100). While these results were true for traditional acupuncture as well as electroacupuncture, they were also true for placebo or sham acupuncture (essentially fake acupuncture). Rather than increasing blood flow to an area or releasing qi through the body, maybe acupuncture simply stimulates the most powerful healing organ of all: the mind.
6. Stress relief
Whether it is the soothing atmosphere under which acupuncture is traditionally administered or the treatment itself, acupuncture appears to actually decrease the amount of stress hormones in the body as part of its main benefit. As chronic pain and stress are often linked to each other, with one intensifying the other, this benefit, while not directly related to pain relief, may be a key element of acupuncture’s effectiveness for even more types of pain.
It is true that one of the most helpful tools for pain relief may be the acupuncture session itself. Treatments are usually administered in a comfortable room with soft lighting and relaxing music or other ambient noise (e.g., water features or instrumental music). Patients stay fully clothed, only exposing the area that will have needles inserted (often arms, ankles, or the head).
Once the needles are inserted, the patient is made comfortable with blankets to stay warm and pillows to support the body. Patients then simply relax for a period of time between 15 and 45 minutes. Many even fall asleep.
The practitioner will then return and remove the needles, answering any questions the patient may have and offering suggestions for the rest of the day (e.g., to drink plenty of water, eat good food, and generally try to have a restful day). Pain relief may be immediate, or it may occur later in the day or overnight.
Many medical professionals who may not be 100% on board with acupuncture as a reliable treatment for pain still see no harm in adding it to a treatment plan for pain. There are virtually no side effects other than maybe a small pinch as the needle is inserted and an occasional soreness at the insertion site for a few hours after. The potential benefits far outweigh the very limited concerns, and many insurance companies now cover a set number of sessions (which can range from $25 to several hundreds of dollars, depending on where you live and the extent of each treatment).
Have you ever tried acupuncture for your pain, or would you consider it?
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