Pain of all types is the condition for which acupuncture is probably best known.
So many questions come to mind: Does it really treat the cause of the pain, or just mask the symptoms? How can placing needles in the superficial levels of the skin cause pain relief in another part of the body? How can it actually relieve pain if there’s nothing on the needle? What’s the evidence say?
These are great questions which have very interesting answers.
Let’s start with the first:
Does it really treat the cause of the pain, or just mask the symptoms?
To answer this, we have to explain a little about the concept of the cause of pain according to Oriental Medicine.
The first concept is: Tong Ze Bu Tong, Bu Tong Ze Tong. “Where there is obstruction, there is pain; where there is no obstruction, there is no pain.”
Keeping with the Oriental Medicine terminology, obstruction can take the form of tissue trauma, blood stasis, qi stagnation or dampness/phlegm accumulation. In Western terms, this equates to actual lesions, poor microcirculation, muscle contraction, inflammation and excess fat or toxic material in the tissues.
Acupuncture does improve microcirculation and it releases pain-relieving neurotransmitters and endorphins in the blood. This is a fact and is well documented and easily proven. The blood carries to the tissues micronutrients and immune cells, and it carries away toxic byproducts of normal cellular metabolism, inflammation and exogenous toxins such as drugs and environmental toxins.
Thus, it follows that improved microcirculation enhances tissue nutrition, improves detoxification and reduces inflammation. Improving these functions promotes healing. Neurotransmitters and endorphins reduce pain, and as we’ve already established, acupuncture does this, and quite well.
So, essentially, no matter the cause of the pain, acupuncture can help improve both healing and reduce pain, via the optimization of the above mentioned functions: improved microcirculation, optimizing cellular nutrition, enhancing cellular detoxification and reducing inflammation.
Including in cases of tissue trauma, enhancing these functions speeds up recovery and reduces pain. That’s not to say that if you cut your arm off you should call your acupuncturist. There is a time and a place for the emergency room and that’s definitely on the list! But, including acupuncture in your recovery plan wouldn’t be at all out of line and might actually do you a lot of good.
The second question we asked was:
“How can placing needles in the superficial levels of the skin cause pain relief in another part of the body?”
Included in this answer is the third question, “How can it actually relieve pain if there’s nothing on the needle?”
These questions have a very interesting answer that again, is found in the Oriental Medicine map of the body.
Just like when you turn on a light, you don’t actually touch the light (usually) – your point of action is at the light switch, which completes a circuit, which sends electricity via an electric wire to the light bulb, which heats the filament and the light turns on.
And just like nerve endings and capillaries reach every cell of the body, supplying nerve impulses and blood circulation, there also exist other pathways called “meridians”. These, along with actual nerves, are like the electric wires of the body.
Yet “meridians” have never been seen in dissections, MRI or x-rays. How can this be? Oriental Medicine and Acupuncture describe these as “potential spaces”, or “space between tissues” where bioelectric charges flow. The are not actually physical structures, but the empty space between physical structures. Other theories hypothesize that it is the fascia and connective tissue that carry these potential charges, and these are physical, visible structures.
When a needle is inserted into the skin, this is essentially the “light switch”. By completing the circuit, bioelectrical and chemical signals are sent to the brain via the meridians and/or fascia. Brains cans of people receiving acupuncture have shown predictable patterns between acupoint stimulation and brain area illumination.
The brain then send signals to a corresponding area of the body. These signals might change blood flow, immune response, hormone levels, endorphin release, or cellular charge, depending on the type of stimulation by the acupuncture needle, which then produce changes in the function and physiology of the cells, tissues, organs and body as a whole.
This is essentially how we can make measurable changes in the body without injecting anything. It is an indirect stimulation using the body’s own healing ability.
So, this is all very interesting, but some of us still need to see the evidence to believe that acupuncture really can relieve pain and is worth investing in as a complementary therapy.
What does the evidence say?
Keep in mind that studies prior to around 1984 were notoriously poorly designed and lab results were inconsistent with the clinical results that practitioners have experienced around the world for centuries. When the laboratory does not reflect real life, it cannot be said that it is a bogus therapy, but that there exists a lack of rigor in study design. Since this time, study design has improved drastically and the results are beginning to reflect what we see every day in the clinic: that acupuncture is indeed a very effective method of pain relief that produces no side effects.
Here we directly cite the website “Evidence-Based Acupuncture” which is known for its dedication to rigorous criteria and a high level of academic rigor:
“For chronic pain, in the largest study of its kind to date, 454,920 patients were treated with acupuncture for headache, low back pain, and/or osteoarthritis in an open pragmatic trial. Effectiveness was rated as marked or moderate in 76% of cases by the 8,727 treating physicians.19 In a 2-year retroactive survey of over 89,000 patients published in 2016, 93% of patients said that their acupuncturist had been successful in treating their musculoskeletal pain.20“
“A meta-analysis of 17,922 patients from randomized trials concluded, “Acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic pain and is therefore a reasonable referral option. Significant differences between true and sham acupuncture indicate that acupuncture is more than a placebo.”21 A follow up study with this data looking at long-term pain relief, found that the benefits of acupuncture persisted 12 months after treatment ended.22“
“Another study in the journal, Current Opinion in Anesthesiology, in the paper titled ‘Acupuncture for Chronic Pain: an Update and Critical Overview’ concluded that “mounting evidence supports the effectiveness of acupuncture to treat chronic low back, neck, shoulder, and knee pain, as well as headaches. Additional data are emerging that support the use of acupuncture as an adjunct or alternative to opioids, and in perioperative settings.”23“
As you can see, the fact that we can’t actually see how acupuncture works doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. In fact, it does work, and especially for pain.
If you are suffering from pain and would like to give acupuncture a try, give us a call at +34 652 575 309 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for a Complimentary Discovery Consult. And, if you’re queasy about needles, we also have non-needle options that are both effective and painless.
Kelli N. Davis, L.Ac., M.A.O.M.
Medical Board Licensed Acupuncturist & Oriental Medicine Practitioner
Functional Wellness Practitioner
The statements made in this blog post are the educated opinions of the writer and do not constitute a medical diagnosis.