Managing pain is a frequent concern for a lot of Americans. One quarter of all respondents to a National Health Interview (NHI) survey reported experiencing recent pain of more than one day’s duration. The number of Americans who are turning to acupuncture as an option for pain management is rising. In the 2002 survey, two million Americans reported using acupuncture for pain in the previous 12 months, and in the 2007 survey, that number had increased to three million.
In our acupuncture clinics in the Twin Cities, we have performed over 36,800 acupuncture treatments since 2007, and our weekly number of treatments continues to rise.
The 2007 survey showed that pain or musculoskeletal complaints accounted for seven of the top 10 reasons people used acupuncture. Back pain was most common, followed by joint pain, neck pain, severe headache/migraine, and recurring pain. Our clinical experience since 2007 supports this data.
Acupuncture is one of the oldest healing modalities in the world, and is one part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). According to TCM theory, the acupuncture points are on channels or “meridians” that carry vital energy or “Qi” throughout the body. This theory states that blockages of this flow of energy lead to illness and disease, and that by stimulating acupuncture points practitioners can restore the flow and restore balance and health to the body.
Acupuncturists stimulate designated points on the body through the use of very thin, sterile needles inserted in the skin. The needles that we use in our clinics are seven times thinner than a hypodermic needle used in a doctor’s office. There should not be discomfort or pain with the treatment. The stimulation of these points triggers the brain and central nervous system in the body.
Researchers are trying to determine how acupuncture works to relieve pain by looking at the biomechanisms that occur during an acupuncture treatment through the use of neuroimaging techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) , to look at the effects of acupuncture on the brain. One theory is that acupuncture activates opiod systems in the brain that respond to pain. One study using MRI results in the UK showed that when a patient was given acupuncture, the pain center of the brain was the only area activated during the treatment. Research in acupuncture neuroimaging continues.
The following are two additional acupuncture studies on pain conditions:
- Low back pain — A 2009 study of 638 participants with chronic low back pain were given 10 acupuncture treatments by experienced acupuncturists over a seven-week period, and showed greater improvement in symptoms and dysfunction than those given usual care. Additionally, one year after treatment the participants in the acupuncture group continued to show significant improvements in dysfunction.
- Migraines / headaches — A 2009 Cochrane review analysis of 22 trials with 4,419 participants determined that “after three to four months, patients receiving acupuncture had higher response rates and fewer headaches.” It also concluded: “Available studies suggest that acupuncture is at least as effective as, or possibly more effective than, prophylactic drug treatment, and has fewer adverse effects. Acupuncture should be considered a treatment option for patients willing to undergo this treatment.”
Research also suggests that acupuncture may also help these pain conditions as well: osteoarthritis of the knee; Carpal Tunnel Syndrome; menstrual cramps; TMJ pain; tennis elbow; and side effects of chemotherapy.
Acupuncture is generally considered safe when performed by an experienced practitioner using sterile needles, and serious adverse events related to acupuncture are rare. In the 36,800 treatments that we have given in five years, we have had no reported incidents of any serious concerns. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: “Additionally, there are fewer adverse effects associated with acupuncture than with many standard drug treatments (such as anti-inflammatory medication and steroid injections) used to manage painful musculoskeletal conditions like fibromyalgia, myofascial pain, osteoarthritis, and tennis elbow.”