If you’re looking for help with chronic pain, acupuncture may not be the first solution that comes to mind. However, because of its low risk of side effects when administered correctly by a trained professional, acupuncture has a leg up on other treatments for chronic pain like over-the-counter medication or prescription opioids. It’s also a good option for people who are interested in a holistic approach to wellness.
Effect of Acupuncture on the Body
Acupuncture is the practice of placing thin, flexible needles at precise locations on the body to stimulate healing. The treatment is an ancient form of traditional Chinese medicine and is used as a way to restore a normal flow of “qi” (pronounced chee), or energy, inside the body. When normal energy flow is restored it results in improved blood circulation.
Thinking of health in terms of your body’s energy flow may seem odd to those who are used to a Western style of medical care. However, modern medicine has accepted that acupuncture works by stimulating the nervous system. According to a paper published in the journal Anesthesia & Analgesia, when the fine needles are placed at specific acupuncture points it sends a signal to the brain and triggers the release of feel-good endorphins that lessen the perception of pain.
“When there is pain or illness it is the body asking for help,” says Seishiro Hokazono, a licensed acupuncturist at Samaritan Heartspring Wellness Center in Albany. “With acupuncture, we use the body to send signals to the brain and stimulate the body’s own healing response.”
According to Hokazono, the body has more than 360 different “acupoints” that can be stimulated on the back, head, feet, arms, hands and near major blood vessels and nerve pathways. These acupoints are used in traditional Chinese medicine to address pain or illness and facilitate healing, depending on what the patient needs.
A study published in the journal Neuroscience Letters used brain imaging and found that using traditional therapeutic acupuncture points was the key to activating the correct area of the brain for pain relief – sticking needles in random places won’t do the trick.
What Happens During Treatment
Before you begin treatment, your acupuncturist will talk with you about what kind of pain you are experiencing and any health conditions you may have. Hokazono notes that he also discusses with patients how much improvement they can expect from acupuncture.
After the initial consultation, you will be instructed to lay down on an exam table and the tiny acupuncture needles will be placed. Hokazono reports that he uses between five and 10 needles for most people. After the needles are in place, the therapist may give them a gentle twirl. While most people don’t notice any pain from the needle placement, there may be a feeling of fullness, warmth, twinging or cramping when the needle is manipulated. This is a normal reaction.
The needles will stay in place for 10 to 20 minutes while you relax, and then be removed.
Conditions Acupuncture Can Help
According to the National Institutes of Health, there is research-based evidence that acupuncture may help with:
- Chronic low back pain.
- Neck pain.
- Osteoarthritis pain.
- Reducing headaches and migraines.
- Reducing some side effects of cancer treatment like nausea and vomiting.
The American Association of Neurological Surgeons and the American College of Physicians both recommend acupuncture as a non-invasive treatment option for back pain. A small but growing body of research suggests acupuncture may be helpful for other conditions like menstrual pain and sleep disorders.
The true focus of acupuncture isn’t just treating symptoms but identifying the root cause and achieving wellness in the whole person, reports Hokazono.
“Acupuncture is the practice of helping the body to restore balance,” he says. “When we listen to the body then healing can occur.”
In January of 2020, acupuncture for chronic low back pain was approved for coverage under Medicare Part B.