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The Link Between Acupuncture + Pain

Pain and acupuncture go hand in hand like peanut butter and jelly. Why? Becauseacupuncture plays an important role in regulating brain chemistry. Opiates, to be exact. Yes, acupuncture is like a drug — the healthiest way to stimulate your brain chemistry is to release opiates and endorphins.

What literally happens is when a foreign object (a stainless-steel needle) is inserted in the body, both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems wake up and begin increasing glucose metabolism in specific parts of the brain that process pain signals. This process increases the binding of pain receptors to the body’s natural painkillers (such as endorphins), which in turn weakens the pain signals. Increasing this binding process allows the nervous system to enhance the brain’s naturally produced opioids. The result is the reduction of pain signals, which ultimately reduces pain all together.

There are a lot of different pain treatments available with acupuncture, as it can treat a wide range of issues from physical to internal pain. From broken body parts or abdominal pain to migraines or menstrual pain, the treatments can address a lot of issues. Reducing the release of pain signals by getting blood to move is the mechanism by which acupuncture works to regulate the pain. In Chinese medicine, we really care about how the blood flows and how much energy the body has to assist with these processes.

Pain can be chronic or acute. It could be because of an old injury or something new and sudden. With more acute issues, I always tell my patients in the room that I want them to feel a different before they leave. The pain doesn’t have to go away 100%; however, I like to see a shift in the pain. If the pain is less, or not as sharp, or feels like it’s moving, those are key phrases that let the acupuncturist know they’re on the right track.

What Goes Down In A Session?

In a typical acupuncture session, the acupuncturist initially gets information about your health history. Then they examine your tongue (to see how your blood is flowing and how hydrated you are, by the color, shape, coating) and then they check your pulse. For pain treatments specifically, the acupuncturists tests to see what the condition is and makes sure you shouldn’t be admitted to the hospital. Afterwards, a diagnosis is made and the treatment plan is put in place. The patient lies comfortably on the treatment table and should feel little to almost nothing in most points of needling. The needles are then retained for about 30 minutes while the patient relaxes, lying on the table. The number of treatments vary with each individual depending on the condition and their blood flow. For really stubborn issues, coming in twice week in the beginning is extremely beneficial.

Within the scope of acupuncture, there are a few different modalities and teachings of working on pain. There are trigger-point pain release techniques and also polarity treatments. Polarity treatments are when the acupuncturist use points away from the area of pain to redirect blood flow. This is my favorite type of technique and I’ve seen patients receive a tremendous amount of relief with it. Using opposite or polar areas of the body to change the flow of blood and redirect the energy causing inflammation allows the patient to move around and see if they feel a difference. Also, it enhances the body’s natural intelligence process by scanning itself to find the areas of inflammation.

Overall, pain treatments and acupuncture are very common and having a clear understanding behind why it works so well allows people to give this incredible medicine a real chance.