Pain Relief: Acupuncture & Chinese Medicine

“So, can you help me with my pain?" It’s the first question I’m asked when someone discovers I’m an acupuncturist.

Acupuncture is a branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) with a rich history and lineage dating back thousands of years to ancient China. Acupuncture is truly a medical art, as each clinician uses various approaches, techniques and styles to address their patients’ conditions; no two patients are treated the same. Acupuncturists have a unique and keen ability to address the patient as a whole. We take a tremendous amount of time assembling a complex jigsaw puzzle; each piece of the puzzle comprises details such as stress levels, bowel movements, response to changes in season, aversion or preference to cold or hot temperatures, menstrual cycle, etc. Our main goal is to treat the root cause of a patient’s condition. It is not uncommon for my chronic pain patients to notice improvement in pain, but they also begin noticing side benefits, such as improvement in sleep, mood, mental clarity, and overall improvement in quality of life.  

Acupuncture is now available in many US hospitals and private practices. It’s even being used by the Department of Defense to treat our soldiers who are dealing with acute and chronic pain in war-torn areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

You may experience any one or a combination of TCM techniques for pain management. Traditional acupuncture is the most commonly used and the following techniques are often added to enhance a traditional treatment.

Traditional Acupuncture

An acupuncturist will pick a combination of points on the body called acupoints. These are regions that, when stimulated by hair-thin needles, will induce various therapeutic effects in the body, one of which is a pain-relieving effect. Once the needles are in the body, the acupuncturist will apply specific subtle and purposeful manipulations to the needles, such as twirling the needle clockwise, or counterclockwise, varying the depth of insertion, etc.

Moxibustion

This is a technique involving moxa, the herb mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). In TCM, this herb is used to invigorate the flow of Qi and blood, promote a pain-relieving effect, and deeply penetrate the area of discomfort with soothing warmth.

Electro-Acupuncture

This involves the placement of needles as is performed in traditional acupuncture needling, but rather than applying manual manipulation to the needles, an acupuncturist will attach electrodes from an electrical device to specific needles placed in the body. Once the electrodes are placed, the acupuncturist will adjust the frequency and wave pattern of electricity according to the patient’s condition. The device is turned on, and the patient will feel a small current of electricity move through the needles and into the soft tissue. This sensation should be comfortable as the intensity is adjusted to fit the patient’s tolerance. This technique is not only for various pain conditions, but also for numbness or neuropathy.

Auricular Acupuncture

This is a procedure involving the placement of needles solely in the ear to treat your pain condition. The auricular model is a microsystem, meaning the entire body is mapped on the ear. For pain, we tediously palpate areas of the ear for tender points that correlate to areas of pain felt in the body. Needles are placed in points that promote pain relief and sedation. All pain-related conditions can be effectively addressed using this technique.

Cupping

In TCM, many pain conditions are due, in part, to stagnation of Qi and blood in the area of discomfort. Cupping is a technique in which a suction-like force holds cups against the skin for several minutes. This treatment promotes increased blood flow to the area of pain and can be quite effective for lingering pain conditions from old injuries such as whiplash, low back pain or shoulder pain. 

Guasha

This is another way an acupuncturist can resolve any stagnation of Qi and blood in the body that may be an attributing factor to pain. In this technique, a medium is placed on the skin, such as massage oil, which has a lubricating and protective function. The acupuncturist will then use a tool with a smooth surface – my preference is a device made of jade. The guasha tool is held in the acupuncturist’s hand and, using moderate force, the acupuncturist will rub the tool on the patient’s skin in long smooth strokes. This technique will create redness to the area as we work to break up the area of stagnation and pain.

Acupressure

Unlike acupuncture, this is a non-invasive technique in which an object is used to apply mild to moderate pressure to acupoints rather than puncturing the skin with needles. This object can be in the form of your fingers or other devices that can apply long-term pressure. For my patients who are migraine and headache sufferers, I will often demonstrate acupressure techniques to several acupoints, which could potentially abort the onset of a migraine or reduce its severity. Because acupressure is non-invasive, this is a technique that, when properly taught, can be used by the patient to self-treat.

The beauty of acupuncture is it can be easily incorporated into any pain management program without interfering with conventional treatment protocols, and with little to no side effects.