Why Acupuncture Works For Chronic Pain, According To Science (And How To Make It Work For You!)


Acupuncture is the therapeutic use of very thin, hair-width needles to stimulate specific points on the body to reduce pain or disease and promote wellbeing. Before I was diagnosed, I never had expected to become an acupuncture aficionado. My impression was that it seemed like a painful way to go about treating health conditions. I was also skeptical about how effective it could be. However, like many other chronic pain patients before me, the limited treatment options at my doctor’s office left me searching for alternatives. Trying acupuncture started to make sense. After looking into it and trying it myself, I have realized that it is a valuable tool in my chronic pain treatment toolbox.

Acupuncture has been used for over 3,000 years and is an integral part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). In this medical system, health is understood as achieving a balance between opposing forces (yin and yang). Traditionally, essential life energy, called ‘qi’ (chee) is believed to flow along channels in the body called meridians, keeping yin and yang balanced. Acupuncture points are mapped along meridians. If the flow of qi is blocked, it causes pain and disease (imbalance). Stimulating acupuncture points restores the flow of qi along the meridians, improving the health of the individual and restoring balance.

Western medicine offers a different perspective on how acupuncture works. Scientific studies show that acupuncture points are frequently located on nerve bundles or muscle trigger points (Beck, 2010). Acupuncture has been found to increase blood flow to tissues around the acupuncture point, promote healing of localized tissues and affect the central nervous system (Beck, 2010). Some of the nervous system effects include down-regulating pain sensation, encouraging a relaxed brain state, and calming the autonomic nervous system (Beck, 2010). However, some sceptics believe these findings only demonstrate a strong placebo response to acupuncture.

Dozens of studies have investigated whether acupuncture is an effective treatment for chronic pain. The National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health (2016) explains that “Results from a number of studies suggest acupuncture may help…types of pain that are often chronic,” including low-back pain, neck pain and osteoarthritis. Acupuncture may also reduce the frequency of tension headaches and prevent migraines (NCCIH, 2016).

A recent study by Vas et al. (2016) investigated the effectiveness of individualized acupuncture treatment programs for patients with fibromyalgia (as opposed to most studies that use a standardized treatment program). Tailored treatments were compared to “sham acupuncture” treatments – needles inserted at random points on the body. Researchers found that, after nine weeks of 20 minute treatment sessions, individuals who received the tailored acupuncture reported a 41% decrease in pain compared to 27% for the sham acupuncture group (Vas, 2016).

The NCCIH (2016) explains that one of the benefits of acupuncture is the low-side effect profile (when conducted by a credentialed acupuncturist using sterilized needles). Since medication for chronic pain often causes significant side effects, this makes acupuncture an attractive treatment option for people living with chronic pain.

If you’re interested in trying to acupuncture, you should be aware that there are two broad types of practitioners. The first are practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine Acupuncture, and should have their certification accredited by a recognized professional body like the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. The second school of acupuncturists practice Contemporary Medical Acupuncture, based on western medical principles rather than balancing qi in the body. Often these practitioners are physiotherapists (physical therapists), naturopaths, or chiropractors who have received additional certifications in this area.

How do you decide which type of practitioner to see? TCM acupuncturists will treat your from a whole-body perspective, and may offer new insights or see connections other medical professionals have missed. Contemporary medical acupuncturists are probably most effective at treating specific musculoskeletel problems. For example, my physiotherapy sessions have become more effective at relieving neck and low back muscles spasms since my therapist began incorporating acupuncture. In contrast, my TCM acupuncturist has helped me reduce my overall number of flares, stress and fatigue, but is less helpful at resolving immediate problems. I have to add that TCM acupuncturists are often much more adept at inserting needles painlessly – after all, this is their area of expertise! 

You may be thinking “But I hate needles; this sounds too painful!” In my own experience, the needle insertion feels like a slight pinch, which disappears in 3-5 seconds. If there is any discomfort, the acupuncturist will remove the needle. After insertion, you usually cannot feel the needles. Occasionally, there may be a sense of warmth or heaviness around the insertion point. The needles are typically left in for 15-30 minutes while you rest.

There is a wide variation in the skill level and “bedside manner” of acupuncturists. For that reason, it’s important to do your research and come prepared with a list of questions:

  • Research the practitioner you are considering seeing to ensure that they have a recognized certification from an accrediting body.
  •  Ensure that the clinic has a clean needle policy – that all needles are pre-packaged, sterilized and unused (I have never come across a clinic that does not do this, but better to be safe than sorry!)
  • Contact the clinic and ask whether they have experience treating clients who have similar chronic pain conditions. Do not go to a spa or aesthetician for pain treatment!
  • Ask that they provide extra pillows to support your body while lying down and a treatment table with a head cradle (an oval opening for face support when you are lying on your stomach, so you do not need to turn your head to the side.
  • Ensure that they provide you with a way to call for assistance. It is uncomfortable to move while needles are inserted, so it is imperative that you can get help. The clinic should be able to provide you with a button to push to summon help or that someone can hear you easily.
  • Tell the practitioner if this is your first time receiving acupuncture. Ask that they only use 5 to 10 needles so that you can test how your body will respond. There is no need to trigger a flare by starting with aggressive treatment.
  • You may be offered additional treatments, like acupuncture with a mild electric current, cupping (using suction cups) or moxibustion. Make sure all your questions are answered before you start and always ‘trial’ the treatment the first time. Once, I agree to have my entire back suction cupped, and I had the pain and bruises for days afterward. If I had only allowed a small area to be cupped, I could have realized this treatment wasn’t for me without the suffering!
  • Just like with anyone who is a part of your treatment team, it’s important to make sure that you get along and that they provide patient-centered care.

References:

Beck, M. (2010). Decoding an Ancient Therapy. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved Oct. 15, 2016, from http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704841304575137872667749264

Nahin, R., et al. (2016). Evidence-based evaluation of complementary health approaches for pain management in the United States. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 91(9): 1292-1306. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2016.06.007

NCCIH. (2016, January). Acupuncture: In-Depth. Retrieved Oct. 15, 2016, from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/acupuncture/introduction

Vas, J., et al. (2016). Acupuncture for fibromyalgia in primary care: a randomised controlled trial. Acupuncture in Medicine, 34: 257-66. doi: 10.1136/acupmed-2015-010950.

Vickers, A. J., et al. (2012). Acupuncture for Chronic Pain Individual Patient Meta-analysis. Arch Intern Med. 172(19): 1444-53. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2012.365

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