Treating Pain With Acupuncture

by Karen Lee Richards Patient Advocate

Although the use of acupuncture is still somewhat controversial in Western medical circles, a number of research studies have shown it to be an effective treatment for fibromyalgia and other chronic pain illnesses. Acupuncture is one component of the practice of Chinese medicine. Chinese medicine, in its entirety, includes acupuncture, moxibustion, herbal and dietary therapies, and Chinese exercise arts (like tai chi). It is a system of health care that addresses the underlying causes of disease and thus can facilitate improvement in most conditions.

Chinese medicine, used in China for more than 5,000 years, is the oldest system of health care still practiced today. Its scientific principles were developed through observation of the natural world and how the universe works. There are basic laws of nature that rule everything from the smallest sub-atomic particle to the largest planet in the solar system. Chinese medicine simply applies these natural laws to the human body in an effort to restore harmony between the internal energies of the individual and the external energies of the environment. By restoring this energetic balance, the body is able to overcome illness at its root.

Chinese Medicine vs. Western Medicine

In order to understand how acupuncture works, it's important to understand the differences between Western medicine and Chinese medicine. One of the major differences is the way each looks at the body's relationship to health and disease.

  • Western medicine treats symptoms to fight disease; Chinese medicine increases health to unseat disease.

  • Western medicine looks for what "bug" is causing a disease; Chinese medicine looks for what weakness is causing an individual to be susceptible to a disease.

  • Western medicine is based on reductionism - breaking things down to observe each microscopic segment; Chinese medicine is based on unification - observing how entire systems work together and interrelate.

  • Western medicine sees health as an absence of symptoms or disease; Chinese medicine sees health as a balance of body, mind and spirit.

The purpose of Chinese medicine is not to compete with Western medicine but to complement and complete it. The advanced technologies of Western medicine explain how disease affects the body. The exceptional observational techniques of Chinese medicine explain why disease invades the body.

How Acupuncture Works

According to Chinese medicine, there are energetic pathways, or channels, throughout the body that influence associated internal organs and structures. Energy from these pathways surfaces at various points on the body, identified as acupuncture points. Each of these acupuncture points serves as a tunnel, or access route, to the deeper circulatory channels within. Acupuncture stimulates a selection of specific points, thereby activating the body's natural healing abilities.

Acupuncture's Approach to Pain

Chinese Medicine makes a distinction between different types of pain: emotional pain, physical pain and traumatic pain. These three different types of pain have different origins, different manifestations, and thus varying treatment procedures.

1. Emotional Pain - Emotional pain, psychological pain or mental pain can be defined as the type of pain experienced with the death of a relative or close friend or long-term mental psychological trauma due to illness, family, job issues or any long-term stressor. Chinese medicine defines seven psychological entities: anger, excessive joy, worry, sadness, fear, complaining, and crying. The acupuncture treatments used for these seven problems come from the Da Cheng, a classical Chinese text written several thousand years ago.

2. Physical Pain - There is a physical pain caused from an external origin due to what Chinese medicine calls an attack of perverse energy (i.e., wind, cold and dampness). This type of invasion into the body causes a stagnation, which results in a burning type of pain. An accompanying deficiency in blood and energy will result in pain and numbness.

Certain times of the year many patients come in with the same problem, such as frozen shoulders, low back pain, headache, pain that travels throughout their body. Patients will say they get up in the morning and just can't stand straight or cannot move their arm. This is called seasonal pain. In our bodies we have 12 principle channels that circulate blood and energy. Each principle channel is related to a month of the year. The energy of the body follows temporal changes in the environment and not conforming to climatic variations causes stagnation with pain located in muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves.

This maladaptation of external perverse climatic energy changes can also be due to internal deficiencies in the body. Causes of internal deficiencies are many and varied: long-term stress, drugs - both legal and illegal, alcohol abuse, and also physical and emotional trauma. This type of pain moves to various parts of the body and can present as headaches, burning pain, deep aches and many of the symptoms associated with fibromyalgia, chronic pain and many other health issues.
3. Traumatic Pain - Traumatic pain is caused by an injury to the body from external causes (i.e., a fall, an auto accident, etc.). Acupuncture treatments for traumatic pain will vary depending on the location of the injury and the type of damage done.

What to Expect at an Acupuncture Appointment

  • Interview - First, your acupuncture specialist will ask you questions about your medical history, how you are currently feeling and what is happening in your life. It is important not to leave out information or symptoms because they are not related to the reason for your visit. Seemingly unrelated symptoms may actually make perfect sense based on the energetic principles of Chinese medicine.

  • Examination - Your acupuncturist may examine your eyes and ask you to stick out your tongue. He can learn much about your current state of health by observing the color and texture of your skin, eyes and tongue. Next, he will take your pulses. This is not the heart rate pulse that is taken in a Western medical office, although Chinese medical pulses are also taken on your wrists. These pulses indicate how your energetic channels are functioning.

  • Treatment - Based on the interview and examination, a group of acupuncture points will be selected for your treatment. These points are chosen specifically for you, based on their individual effect and their ability to work harmoniously with the other points chosen. Acupuncture is safe and often painless. The needles used are made from extremely fine gauge, flexible surgical stainless steel. (Five acupuncture needles fit inside the hole of a hypodermic needle.) And unlike hypodermic needles that cut the skin, acupuncture needles slide through the skin without cutting. Only sterile, one-time-use needles are used.

Each treatment is aimed at relieving your existing condition as well as addressing the root causes that led you to your current state. Treatment progresses as you progress and changes based on your individual response to the treatment. By treating disease at its origin, Chinese medicine aims to restore health by working with the body in the direction it naturally wants to go... toward a healthy state of being.

Marshall, S., & Walker, B. An Introduction to Chinese Medicine. Sugar Grove, NC: Jung Tao School of Classical Chinese Medicine.
Personal Interview with Acupuncturist Richard W. Morgan, LAc, LMT, CNT. December 10, 2007.

© Karen Lee Richards, 2008
Last updated: 6/22/08

Karen Lee Richards
Meet Our Writer
Karen Lee Richards

Karen is the co-founder of the National Fibromyalgia Association. She writes for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Pain Management.