Pain is a sensation that is both all-too familiar and a challenge to define. It can be sharp or dull, steady or intermittent, mild or debilitating. It impacts how we function mentally and physically and has a direct effect on our ability to be immersed in personal pursuits as well as being engaged with others and our communities. Perhaps that is why pain is one of the top reasons for people to seek medical care.
The treatment of pain has always presented a challenge. Though acute pain abates as soon as an injury heals, studies have shown that this process can take longer without adequate pain relief. As for chronic pain, which is defined as pain that has lasted for three to six months or longer, it is said to afflict over 1.5 billion people around the world. A 2011 study on the care of pain conducted by the Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Advancing Pain Research, Care, and Education determined that when people visit their primary care physicians for anything other than wellness visits, analgesics were the most frequently-discussed medication, and that pain-relieving drugs represent the second-most frequently prescribed medication (just behind anti-depressants). Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs have been shown to have limitations and disadvantages, and overprescribing of opioid medications has led to abuse, tragedy and a national epidemic. Chinese Medicine offers a safe, effective alternative, both on its own and in combination with traditional pain relief offerings.
A Different Approach to the Treatment of Pain
Western medicine views pain as a symptom of some kind of insult to the body or tissue, and categorizes it as either acute or chronic. Science further breaks pain down into three categories: nociceptive (an injury to the skin, muscles, bones joints, or organs); inflammatory (a flood of immune cells rushing in to heal damage caused by injury or illness); or neuropathic (involving damage to the nervous system itself). By contrast, Traditional Chinese Medicine categorizes pain in terms of stagnation, internal cold or heat, and dampness or wind. Treatment options include acupuncture, herbs, adjustments to diet, exercise, massage, and other therapies, all of which focus on reclaiming balance and rectifying the impediments that hinder the body’s attempts to circulate the flow of Qi and blood. Qi is our vital energy that circulates through the body — in fact, one of the most well-known Chinese sayings is, “If there is free flow, there is no pain; if there is no free flow, there is pain.”
An increasing number of Americans are turning to acupuncture and other forms of Chinese medicine for pain relief, with the majority seeking help for lower back pain. Others need help for aching joints, for neck pain and for headaches, and most have turned to the alternative treatment because conventional medical treatments have failed and because research has increasingly pointed to the effective relief it delivers.
What the Science Says
Some functional MRI studies have revealed that acupuncture changes the way that the brain experiences and perceives pain, while others have said that the therapy releases endorphins, which are natural pain-relieving compounds. Numerous studies have shown that acupuncture provides safe and effective relief of both acute and chronic pain in both adult and pediatric populations, including a study that successfully used acupuncture to manage acute pain in hospitalized children. A U.K. study that followed nearly 18,000 patients treated with acupuncture for a variety of musculoskeletal conditions found it to be one of the most clinically effective physical therapies, while another study of temporomandibular disorder treatment found the use of acupuncture to be just as effective as the use of a bite-splint for relieving pain and muscle tension.
Importantly, the use of acupuncture not only provides symptom relief but does so in a way that avoids the long-term adverse effects that other pain management options risk: a recent study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine reported that individuals offered acupuncture and other non-pharmacologic therapies through the Department of Defense’s Military Health System experienced fewer new-onset alcohol and/or drug use disorders; less suicidal ideation; were less likely to attempt suicide; and were less likely to overdose on opioids or other drugs.
In addition to providing relief of pain, the use of acupuncture and other Chinese medicine therapies contributes to improvements in overall wellness, which helps with both the management and the prevention of chronic pain.
Sharon Sherman has been licensed to practice acupuncture and Oriental Medicine since 2001, and holds the highest credential available from both the Pennsylvania State Board of Medicine and the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Her knowledge and understanding of pain management and the skillful use of acupuncture and Chinese medicine assure patients of the highest level of care and professionalism.