Acupuncture and Pain

Acupuncture and its allied technique, moxibustion (the application of heat to acupuncture points), have been used to treat pain for thousands of years. Until recently, scientific evidence for its effectiveness was lacking. However, in recent years, the sheer numbers of people who have reported gaining relief from pain through acupuncture have stimulated a tsunami of research to find out if acupuncture really works and if so, how.

Is Acupuncture effective in treating pain?

Now we have evidence that acupuncture helps with pain, and that evidence is rated “good” or “moderate”, depending on the kind of pain. The kinds of pain for which there is good or moderate evidence of effectiveness include spinal pain, sciatica, headaches, shoulder pain, tennis elbow, osteoarthritis of the knee, heel pain, pelvic pain, and jaw joint pain (see the table below).

From: McDonald J and Janz S (2017). The Acupuncture Evidence Project: A Comparative Literature Review. Published by the Australian Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Association Ltd.

How does acupuncture help pain?

The plain truth is that while we know that it does, we are not all that clear about how, at least in Western medical terms. Traditional Chinese explanations focus on the circulation of Qi (vital energy) around the body. Pain can occur in an area if this circulation is blocked or altered, for example if there is too much Qi gathering in an area causing stagnation, or if there is not enough Qi circulating to an area. Pain can also occur if our normal flow of Qi is blocked or shocked by invasions of energy from outside the body, such as heat, cold, damp or wind.

In the Western scientific view, it is believed that acupuncture changes the way pain signals are produced, transmitted and processed by the nervous system. For example, it may reduce pain by stimulating the production in the brain of our own natural pain-killing chemicals such as opioids and cannabinoids. It can also work by reducing muscle tension, thus releasing joints from strain, and it can de-activate “trigger points” – small areas of excessive sensitivity in muscles, tendons and ligaments that produce pain and maintain muscle tension.

So, we know now that acupuncture can help relieve pain, and there is some evidence pointing to mechanisms by which this effect is achieved.

Copyright © Robert Hale 2021.

(Photo de Adobe Stock Images.)

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