Updated: Apr 17, 2019
By this point, we have all heard about acupuncture's benefits in reducing and often relieving pain. If you poke around on Dr. Google looking for explanations of why this is so, you'll find explanations involving "qi", "flow", and "balance". Yes, these are all factors in living a pain-free life, especially if you are a Chinese Medicine nerd (like we are). However, modern science can be used to explain the benefits of acupuncture to everyone else, too!
In our opinion, and from a modern Western perspective, there are three primary forces at play when an acupuncturist is helping reduce and relieve your pain- retraining your nervous system, reducing inflammation, and enhancing circulation.
Retraining Your Nervous System
As has been shown in new research in the field of neuroplasticity, chronic pain is not a necessary evil if your pain is not caused by a structural problem (which is the case with most chronic pain). The brain processes pain when sensory nerves and proprioceptive nerves (similar in function to a homing device telling your CNS where the pain Is) fire together, warning the body of an injury. When this happens in a balanced nervous system, the brain then releases enkephalins, some of the body's natural pain killers, which arrive in your brain, along your spine, and locally, stopping the pain messaging. For people experiencing chronic pain, this system is out of whack. It is suspected that the primary cause of this malfunction is a low signal strength coming from proprioceptive cells, leaving the brain unsure about where and to what extent it needs to send out the enkephalins, leaving you in pain. Acupuncture will raise the signal strength on the proprioceptive pathway and the result is a sudden and dramatic relief from pain as your brain is finally able to process and respond to the stimulus, and is finally able to relieve your body's pain on it's own. It is this mechanism which makes acupuncture such a successful treatment for chronic pain. It is also this mechanism which can prevent acute injuries from evolving into chronic pain.
Inflammation Reduction & Circulation Enhancement
In addition to assisting your brain in treating your body's pain, acupuncture also reduces inflammation and increases circulation and healing in damaged tissue, which speeds up your recovery. When we insert a needle in your tissue (usually in an "acupoint" which is a discussion worthy of a separate posting), your body responds to the needle the same way it would a splinter, with the goals of preventing infection, healing the tissue, and excreting the invader. In the tissue surrounding the needle insertion, your body opens up micro-circulation in an effort to deliver your body's various natural healing chemicals locally via fresh circulation.
Depending on the nature of the injury you are seeking relief from, we either insert needles locally to deliver those chemicals and increased circulation at the site of your pain, or we use "distal" points, points on unaffected limbs, to get these healing processes in motion. Often, distal points have a stronger result, as they are in healthier tissue and in places on the body where thousands of years of clinical experience has taught acupuncturists that the peripheral nervous system's nocioceptors (nerve endings that warn your central nervous system of potential hazards in the periphery of your body) will act as a short cut in relieving pain in another location.
So, what does it all mean?
Through working with an acupuncturist, you can begin to retrain your nervous system to locate and properly respond to injuries, even old ones, while reminding your body that rather than having a holding pattern around the injury, it needs to send fresh circulation and your body's naturally occurring healing chemicals to the site to begin the healing process.
As with all treatments in Traditional Chinese Medicine and other schools of acupuncture, each session is customized to the patient's needs in that moment. By investigating what your body needs through understanding the symptoms you are presenting, we formulate an individualized treatment that can get to the root of your pain and greatly decrease if not completely eliminate it.
I would be remiss if I did not add this disclaimer- when a patient’s pain is caused by a structural problem where there is actual tissue pushing directly on a sensory nerve or group of nerves, acupuncture alone will not solve this type of problem. These patients usually need more involved procedures, such as surgery. At Within: Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine, we assist patients in finding an appropriate doctor to carry on with their treatment.
Give us a call at (415)839-8090 to schedule a free 15 minute consultation or visit our webpage www.withinsf.com to learn more about our clinicians and see if acupuncture is right for you.