Acupuncture and the Treatment of Pain
Many people seek acupuncture for pain relief. Pain has many presentations. The first thing you need to understand about pain is it has a specific purpose. The purpose of pain is to inform you that something is wrong. A sore throat, headache, and back pain have one thing in common; each condition sends a pain signal to your brain. When the pain signal reaches the brain the patient will take action ether consciously and/or subconsciously.
Pain can be acute, chronic, or recurring in nature. By acute we mean the injury or illness is recent. By chronic we mean you have had the condition for an extended period of time and require ongoing treatment. A recurring illness is one that you experience every once and awhile, for example many people have back pain in spring time or allergies in fall.
Myth 1: There is a myth that acupuncture can stop pain permanently and keep your medical doctors from discovering a more serious underlying condition. Nothing could be farther from the truth. You can’t stop the pain signal forever, without resolving the underlying problem. Acupuncture like pain medication is powerful but each has limits. Some patients need treatment for extended periods of time and some patients need treatment permanently to manage pain.
To help determine the type of treatment you should receive, I will ask you if the pain feels better with warmth, better with cold, better with movement, better with rest, or if the pain is constant and never changes. Below are classic pain patterns frequently seen in my office, I’ve given the pattern non Chinese medical names to help aide the understanding of my work.
Acupuncture Fixing the Body
This is most common treatment performed by acupuncturists. Using acupuncture pins the acupuncturist will trigger your body’s natural repair systems. Normally when you have an injury, you have pain, redness and swelling, stiffness, followed by recovery. Frequently after the first acupuncture treatment you will be stiff and sometimes feel worse initially and then a few days later the patient reports improvement in the condition. This stiffness occurs because you body thinks you just sustained another injury and is keeping you still while it conducts repairs. In this situation the acupuncturist is using your body’s own systems to do the repairs.
Turning off the Pain Signal
Sometimes the original condition has been resolved by the body, ether naturally or by surgery, drug therapy, or other treatment but the pain signal keeps firing causing the patient to feel as if they still have the original illness or condition. I have treated a number of patients like this; they still have pain after undergoing a successful surgery. These patients are amazed when after a single treatment the pain signal just stops. The pain completely stops while the patient is lying on the table!
Pain can exhaust a patient physically and emotionally. This stress and fatigue of being in pain can keep your body from healing. When a patient presents with this pattern I do whatever treatment is necessary to slow down the pain signal. I will use acupuncture, electric stimulation, hot and cold packs to give you some level of pain relief. The goal is to provide enough pain relief, for a long enough period of time, that the body can finish repairing the injury.
A deficiency pain condition is defined as an illness that feels better with warmth, movement, and pressure. What causes a deficiency pain problem? Sometimes the body does not have the time or resources available to completely heal an injury when it first occurs. The patient can be fatigued, stressed, have poor eating habits, respiratory conditions, congenital weakness, or simply physically inactive for a long period of time making the patient prone to injury. In this pain presentation the focus of the acupuncture treatment is to first put the organ systems back into balance and help the patient move towards a healthy life style. With short periods of pain relief the patient will feel better and has the opportunity to make the life style changes needed to have a full recovery.
One Problem Causes Many Problems
There are times when one injury causes many problems. When this pattern presents you need to pick your battles. Sometimes treating the second, third, and forth, condition gives the body the ability to finally devote all its attention to the original problem. For example, you hurt your foot and then a month later you have a knee problem, and two month later you hip hurts, and four months later your back hurts. Sometimes we need to focus on the secondary conditions before focusing on the cause.
The reverse is also true, sometimes you treat the primary issue and all the secondary conditions resolve very quickly. This is part of the art and science of being a health care provider.
Decrease Swelling and Moving Blood
Many injuries require increased blood flow to the affected area to speed recovery or provide pain relief. The treatment for this condition requires a treatment that improves circulation. What is commonly called moving blood and qi by acupuncturists. There is a saying in Chinese Medicine “where there is no movement, there is pain.” To decrease swelling around an injury an acupuncturist may use the treatment principle called draining dampness. Many times I combine the treatment principle moving blood and draining dampness for pain due to swelling.
How many acupuncture treatments do I need?
A good rule of thumb is if you feel 25% improvement after one treatment then four visits will be required. A 50% improvement after the first visit then you will probably require two or three treatments. In the event, you only feel a 10% improvement after one office visit then ten treatments will be required. Although I wish I could help everyone some conditions require a team approach and others simple don’t respond to acupuncture.
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