Chronic Pain and Acupuncture: A Safe and Proven Treatment for Patients
Acupuncture is an effective adjunct for a variety of health conditions, but it’s a standout treatment option for those suffering from chronic pain. There are several theories as to why acupuncture is effective with pain conditions, and the results have been demonstrated in medical studies.
Acupuncture is safe for the majority of people, and the risk of adverse effects is minimal. These are notable benefits for pain management patients, as pain conditions can be difficult to treat, and pain medications come with significant risks.
What Chronic Pain Conditions Can Acupuncture Help With?
Acupuncture can help with a variety of chronic pain disorders, including:
- Lower back pain
- Neck pain
- Pelvic pain
- Abdominal pain
- Headaches (including migraines and tension headaches)
- Temporomandibular (TMJ) conditions
Acupuncture also has noted effects on nausea and vomiting, which may accompany some chronic pain disorders – abdominal pain most often.
How Does Acupuncture Help with Chronic Pain?
There are several theories as to how acupuncture helps with pain. They include:
- Pain gating theory – Pain signals are sent from the injury site to the brain. If these signals are inhibited along their pathway, it can block the signal and provide relief.
Some researchers believe that this is what acupuncture is doing when relieving pain – stimulating nerves in a way that interferes with pain messaging.
- Endorphin release theory – Another theory is that acupuncture stimulates the nervous system into releasing mood-boosting and pain-reducing biochemicals called endorphins. These are the same biochemicals released after exercise and while the body recovers from injury.
- Neurotransmitter theory – Yet another theory is that acupuncture also stimulates the brain into releasing neurotransmitters – specifically, serotonin and norepinephrine. By restoring neurotransmitter balance in the brain, anxiety, depression, and some forms of addiction can be treated.
Some patients likely attain relief with a combination of the above mechanisms.
The Medical Research Behind Acupuncture and Chronic Pain
Multiple clinical studies and meta-analyses show that acupuncture is effective for chronic pain. Some of those studies include:
- A 2012 meta-analysis published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. This meta-analysis was updated in 2015 to include research through December 2015. In the analysis, researchers considered 39 trials and nearly 21,000 patients. The researchers found that acupuncture provided clinically significant relief from pain, and that this relief could not be explained by the placebo effect. Further, after a 12-month follow up, the pain relief persisted.
In most cases, patients received between six and 15 acupuncture treatments.
- A 2021 meta-analysis published in Anesthesia and Pain Medicine. This meta-analysis focused solely on abdominal pain and considered five studies published between 2015 and 2018. More than 500 patients were included in the five studies and found that acupuncture could reduce abdominal pain resulting from surgery, appendicitis, and pancreatitis.
In addition to the above studies, there are numerous case studies that echo these results. While every patient is different, the research behind acupuncture and chronic pain is promising.
Acupuncture Can Also Support a Positive Mindset for Pain Relief
Acupuncture is also used to treat several mental and emotional disorders, including anxiety and depression. For people suffering from chronic pain, anxiety and depression can make the pain worse. Stress responses cause inflammation throughout the body, and this can also result in ongoing pain.
Acupuncture’s effects on anxiety and depression are also demonstrated in medical literature. Most patients find the treatment to be relaxing and calming, and these effects have also been shown to persist long after acupuncture sessions are over.
As an eastern medicine modality, acupuncture is intended to restore balance to the body and to a patient’s health. This balance not only helps patients with their chronic pain and mental state, it can also help patients deal with the adverse effects of other pain treatments.