Acupuncture’s first foothold in western medicine was through better pain management. Long before the practice’s widespread benefits were understood, acupuncture was considered a promising adjunct therapy for various pain conditions. Decades of research into acupuncture and pain confirmed this, as there’s considerable evidence backing acupuncture treatments as a form of pain relief.
Today, Houston practitioners can develop custom treatment protocols for each patient, using their symptoms, medical history, and overall health as starting points for effective acupuncture.
What Pain Conditions Can Acupuncture Help Manage?
Acupuncture is typically used with chronic and episodic forms of pain, though some research suggests that it can also help with acute pain, such as labor pains.
According to the World Health Organization, acupuncture’s efficacy has been conclusively demonstrated – through medical research – in 28 conditions. This includes several pain conditions, including but not limited to the following:
- Biliary colic
- Dysmenorrhea (menstrual pain and cramps)
- Facial pain (including craniomandibular conditions like TMJ pain)
- Headaches (including migraines)
- Knee pain
- Low back pain
- Neck pain
- Periarthritis and arthritic pain (including rheumatoid arthritis)
- Postoperative pain
- Tennis elbow
Research is still ongoing, and doctors are still working to understand the underlying mechanisms that drive acupuncture’s efficacy. As such, there are likely many more pain conditions that acupuncture has a therapeutic effect on. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) has identified several dozen conditions that treatment appears to be effective for, but additional research is still needed. Those include the following pain conditions:
- Abdominal pain (including GI spasms and gastroenteritis)
- Cancer pain
- Fasciitis and fibromyalgia
- Herpes zoster (shingles)
- Labor pains
- Post-herpetic neuralgia
- Pain due to endoscopy
- Sore throat
- Spine pain (acute)
You may have noticed that these pain disorders vary greatly in where and how they affect the body. There are major differences in how gastrointestinal pain and arthritic pain present, for example. Researchers are still determining what makes acupuncture effective for so many health problems, but practitioners generally agree that there are several system-level benefits that acupuncture confers to the patient.
Why Does Acupuncture Work for Pain Management?
Chinese medicine, of which acupuncture is a part of, takes a top-down approach to patient health. It considers the body to be a tightly networked system where dysfunction in one area (or organ) may produce symptoms in another, and that this dysfunction may arise from imbalances.
Treatment, then, is focused on restoring balance in the body and fortifying underperforming organs. From a Chinese medicine perspective, part of this process is correcting energy flows through the body – qi, yin and yang are three primary examples – as it is through this energy that life-giving nourishment flows. By stimulating the right acupuncture points, practitioners seek to correct problems with energy flow and circulation that can interfere with organ maintenance.
From a western medicine perspective, acupuncture produces several notable effects, all of which can help with pain management and pain relief. These effects include:
- Stimulating the nervous system in releasing beneficial biochemicals – Acupuncture needles, when inserted into the skin, innervate local nervous tissue and stimulate a number of self-healing and protective mechanisms in the body. Among these is the release of opioid-like bio compounds that the body uses to shut down pain signaling. Stimulation also releases endorphins into the bloodstream – known mood stabilizers that also have significant pain and stress relieving effects.
- Stimulating better circulation – Some of the compounds released during acupuncture are also beneficial for circulation. Nitric oxide is foremost among them and is a recognized vasodilator. Vasodilators stimulate blood vessels into relaxing, which improves flow efficiency through the vessel and reduces blood pressure. As some pain conditions are exacerbated by poor circulation – dysmenorrhea and arthritis are two examples – acupuncture can provide additional relief in the form of better blood flow.
- Balancing hormone levels – Although hormone levels and pain are not typically associated, hormone imbalances can influence the frequency or severity of menstrual pain, and headaches are also believed to be affected by hormone levels. Acupuncture is used in a number of hormone-caused or influenced conditions, as its stimulating effects extend to engaging the body’s hormonal self-regulation mechanisms. By bringing hormones back into balance, it’s possible to reduce the intensity of headache and menstrual pain, among other issues related to hormonal imbalance.
- Stimulating a relaxation response – Acupuncture also stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system during treatment – the part of the nervous system responsible for dialing back stress responses and facilitating relaxation. You can think of the parasympathetic nervous system as the “good cop” to the sympathetic nervous system’s “bad cop.” When engaged, the parasympathetic nervous system also reduces pain signaling severity and can help patients maintain the right mindset for dealing with the pain they can still perceive.
Individually, these mechanisms may only have modest effects, but together they can support an effective pain management regimen for a variety of pain-causing health problems.
The Research Linking Acupuncture Treatment with Better Pain Management
There are hundreds of studies focused on acupuncture and various forms of pain, but a handful have looked at acupuncture’s overall effects on pain management. Those studies include:
- A 2012 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Pain. This meta-analysis considered 39 clinical trials and an overall patient sample size of 20,827. To be included in the analysis, patients must have reported one of five chronic pain conditions – back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, chronic headache or osteoarthritis. In more than 30 of the trials, patients received between six and 15 acupuncture sessions before being evaluated.
The research team found that acupuncture was a “reasonable” option for treating chronic pain, as its effects were medically significant compared to no treatment. The team also found that acupuncture’s positive effects persisted for at least 12 months following treatment, so it could be a long-term option for paint management.
- A 2017 meta-analysis published in Evidence-Based Complementary Alternative Medicine. This analysis specifically looked at the acute analgesic (pain-relieving) effects of acupuncture on an array of pain conditions. Fibromyalgia, back pain, dysmenorrhea, migraine and neck pain were among them, and 13 studies were considered, in all.
The research team concluded that acupuncture produced statistically significant pain relief that was comparable, or superior, to intravenous pain-relieving medication. Of particular note was how fast acupuncture acted on pain. Treatment was associated with efficacy within 15-30 minutes – faster action than intravenous analgesics, which can take an hour or more to take effect.
There are many more studies that echo these results, but the point is that acupuncture has a strong body of research backing case studies and anecdotal accounts advocating for the practice.
Achieve Better Pain Relief with the Help of a Licensed Houston Acupuncturist
Chronic pain affects more than 50 million Americans – or about 1 in 5 people. For a large number of those patients, the pain can severely limit quality of life. Effective treatment, as many patients discover, can be extremely difficult to pin down and usually comes with a high risk of adverse effects.
But for millions of people, acupuncture can provide an efficacious alternative or adjunct for high-risk pain medications. If administered by a licensed Houston acupuncturist – in Houston, this means certification through the Texas Board of Acupuncture Examiners – acupuncture is well-tolerated by most patients and can be safely integrated into a larger pain management approach. If you’re struggling with pain, be it acute, episodic or chronic – reaching out to your licensed Houston acupuncturist may be a worthwhile option where other treatments have failed to provide adequate relief.