Acupuncture and Pain Relief
by Clark Zimmerman, L.Ac.
We all have some experience with pain. While pain can be helpful in pointing out problems in our life, it can also limit us from being present and productive in our daily activities. Whether it is a headache, muscle strain or indigestion, many patients seek medical advice when pain or discomfort appear. Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM, is very effective at treating most causes of body pain. TCM’s approach to pain is similar in some ways to western medicine, but there are many differences as well. In this article I will explain the similar and different views of pain according to both TCM and western medicine, as well as discuss different treatment options.
Western medicine views pain as an action of the nervous system. It describes pain as the stimulation of specific nerve receptors known as nociceptors. These are present in many different tissues, and are stimulated by tissue damage. When these nociceptors are stimulated, they send a message to the brain that something needs to be done to address the underlying cause of the pain. For example, if you are working in the yard and you lift something that is too heavy and it causes damage in a shoulder muscle, the nociceptors in your shoulder sense that your muscle is damaged and create the sensation of pain to encourage you to stop doing the activity that created the pain. This is a very helpful response to a damaging situation. After the initial cause of the pain is removed, the continuing pain reminds us to be aware of the damaged area and protect it so it can properly heal. This can be helpful in the healing process, but it can also overly limit our movement which can lead to increased muscle tension which serves to slow down the healing process.
Pain is treated in a variety of ways with western medicine. Patients are often given some kind of over the counter or prescription medication such as pain killers, anti-inflammatories, or muscle relaxers. A doctor might also recommend physical therapy to strengthen and stretch the effected area of the body. If these methods are unsuccessful then stronger medication, such as steroid injections, or surgery might be recommended. There are many occasions that western medicine is quite effective in the treatment of pain. It is also true that often these treatment strategies simply cover up the pain, but don’t address the underlying problem. Sometimes covering up the pain can serve to make the issue worse, by allowing a person to ignore a more severe injury instead of seeking proper treatment. Medications may also cause unwanted side-effects, such as anti-inflammatories causing stomach problems.
TCM describes pain as the result of qi and blood stagnation. Qi (or energy) and blood move in conjunction with one another. When they flow freely, the body remains healthy and comfortable. Qi and blood can become stagnant because of trauma, overuse, or a lack of proper nutrition. Strong emotions can also cause stagnation of qi and blood. Since stagnation of qi and blood are the cause of pain, the remedy is simply to move the qi and blood and address the underlying cause of the stagnation. For instance, in the case of repetitive use injury, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, a patient would be treated using acupuncture, massage, and an herbal prescription to move qi and blood. Herbs and dietary recommendations may be included in the treatment to address an underlying deficiency (of qi, blood, yin or yang). The patient would also be encouraged to notice what actions elicit the pain, and modify or limit such activities. This treatment strategy is different than western medicine in that it lessens the pain, while also encouraging the proper flow of qi and blood, which then bring more oxygen and nutrients to a damaged area to help the tissue heal.
Western medicine and TCM both have their own strengths and limitations. If a pain condition involves severe structural damage, such as a major tear in a ligament or a broken bone, then western medicine is invaluable in helping to remedy the underlying cause. In these situations TCM can be used in conjunction with western medicine to accelerate the healing process and addressing the pain and discomfort that accompany the injury. If the damage does not involve such major structural damage, then TCM can used alone as an effective treatment.