By Mikel Davenport L.Ac. and Dr. Moshe Lewis
In Chinese medicine, there is a saying: where there is blockage there is pain, but where there is no blockage there is no pain. We know this to be true in western medicine, as well. When we are hurt, inflammation effectively blocks and redirects our body’s healing resources to the site of an injury or infection.
As a result, we often manipulate inflammation as a tool to bring about healing. For example, the orthopedic technique of prolotherapy requires injection of an irritant such as a sugar solution into a weak joint. This irritant induces inflammation, thus increasing the healing of nearby tendons and ligaments.
The traditional Chinese practice of acupuncture works in much the same way: it creates minute traumas along the skin’s surface to bring a beneficial inflammatory response. Acupuncture does more than simply irritate local tissue, though. By directing inflammation to areas that stimulate orthopedic trigger points and our neural pain sensors, the effect of each needle can bring widespread and lasting relief. In my own practice I’ve found acupuncture to be a boon to chronic pain sufferers.
Traditional Chinese Medicine centers on the stimulation of Acupuncture points that are organized around specific energetic pathways along the surface of the body. These “meridians” are thought to link pathways of energy or “Qi” between the surface and the interior of the body. Another type of acupuncture point, the Ahsi points (literally, “Oh, that’s the point”), don’t necessarily lay along a specific meridian but are found around the area of injury or typically where there is pain or blockage.
Acupuncture was controversial for years because modern science couldn’t find any evidence for these meridians. Yet a 1977 study by Melzack and his colleagues showed that many points coincide with trigger points, and we know that stimulating trigger points causes lasting pain relief far from the trigger point itself. A 2002 study by Wu and colleagues showed that acupuncture at meridian locations stimulates the brain’s pain-related neuromatrix. Even though meridians don’t seem to correspond with a definite anatomical feature, we have plenty of scientific evidence to back up the clinical success of acupuncture in treating chronic pain.
Why to use acupuncture
Acupuncture is a great complement to Western medicine because it boosts the healing and pain relief process in situations that we’d usually wait out. For example, a severe inversion sprain of the ankle would typically demand ice, ibuprofen, time, and patience. Adding acupuncture makes the recuperation faster and less uncomfortable. Ahsi point stimulation and scalp acupuncture could provide pain relief, while meridian acupuncture could reduce the inflammation so that physical therapy would be more effective.
Chronic pain sufferers can also use acupuncture to manage flare-ups. Take the all-too-common case of a reinjured herniated disc that is causing acute muscle spasms; acupuncture can be utilized to reduce both the pain and the spasms. In general, acupuncture can be used to combat any condition that causes long-term pain, with none of the side effects associated with pain medication.
The many faces of acupuncture
In pop culture, acupuncture is synonymous with needles, and lots of them. In actual practice, acupuncture’s strategic stimulation can be achieved many different ways—great news for needlephobes! If needles give you the shivers, what about about suction cups and spoons? Cupping, a favorite of celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, creates suction along the body surface to increase blood flow to the underlying tissue. Guan Sha utilizes a porcelain spoon and medicated oil to encourage blood flow and break down scar tissue.
Though all forms of acupuncture are relaxing, techniques that resemble massage therapy are an excellent way to feel pampered while improving health. Acupressure and Tui Na (which means pushing and grasping) are similar to manual therapy. These massage-based acupuncture methods treat soft tissue and joint structures to decrease pain, increase range of motion, and reduce inflammation. Acupuncture has its own answer to hot stone massages, as well: moxa, a technique that uses hot mugwort to warm the skin or the needle. The warm herbal compress increases circulation, and, is especially effective in treating temperature-sensitive conditions like arthritis.
For those who are willing to endure more shock value, electro-acupuncture combines the benefits of needle acupuncture with the circulatory benefits of electrical therapy such as Bionicare. Electro-acupuncture utilizes a TENs unit, similar to those used by physical therapists, applied to the needles to reduce muscle spasms and nerve pain.
It’s a shame that acupuncture is so frequently overlooked by patients, clinicians, and insurance providers alike. Acupuncture effectively relieves pain, increases range of movement, reduces muscle spasms, and aids in the treatment of acute and chronic injuries. Though it is often dismissively labeled as “alternative medicine”, acupuncture is actually a conservative therapy– it can be prescribed as a low-risk, non-invasive alternative to surgeries or interventions. Best of all, it can complement western surgical techniques by speeding up the healing process and reducing recovery time.