The role of acupuncture in pain management

One of the most common reasons why people seek acupuncture treatment is to relieve acute or chronic pain. But what is the role of acupuncture in pain management and how does it work? We take a closer look.

Acupuncture for Pain

Acupuncture can be used to relieve many different painful conditions. Some of the most common types of pain that can be treated with acupuncture include:

  • Headaches and migraines
  • Neck and shoulder pain
  • Back pain
  • Joint pain
  • Knee pain
  • Nerve pain
  • Period pain
  • Arthritis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Lupus

Acupuncture can also be used to relieve the pain associated with acute injuries and muscle strains and sprains.

The Role of Acupuncture in Pain Management

Acupuncture provides a natural way to manage pain for anyone who is reluctant to take strong painkillers. It may also help people who find that medication is not strong enough to manage their symptoms fully.

Acupuncture for pain works best when it is performed on a regular basis. How often you will need treatment depends on what type of pain you are experiencing and how long it has been affecting you. It is usually recommended that you have treatment at least once a week in the early stages, and space your treatments out more once you have found some relief.

Acupuncture is also thought to have cumulative effects when it comes to treating pain. This means that you may have 1–2 days of relief after your first treatment, then 2–3 days relief after your second treatment, and so on. The ultimate aim is to reach a stage where you experience pain relief between one treatment and the next.

How Does Acupuncture for Pain Work?

There are several theories surrounding the role of acupuncture in pain management. One is known as the ‘gate control’ theory of pain. The idea behind this is that pain signals have to pass through several ‘gates’ in the nervous system before they can reach the brain. Acupuncture may help to close these gates by changing the way that nerve cells transmit their messages.

Acupuncture could also help to relieve pain by triggering the release of chemicals called endorphins. Endorphins are painkilling chemicals which are produced by our bodies and have a very similar effect to the drug morphine. As well as reducing pain, endorphins bring about a sense of wellbeing, which may explain why most people feel so relaxed after an acupuncture treatment!

Finally, acupuncture is thought to stimulate the release of another chemical called adenosine. This chemical is formed when cells are damaged. It tells the body that it has been injured, and kick starts the healing process. This is known as purinergic signaling and helps to explain why acupuncture has such a wide range of effects throughout the body.

Studies on Acupuncture for Pain

There have been countless research studies exploring the role of acupuncture in pain management. However, due to the difficulties involved in designing clinical trial for acupuncture, the results are somewhat mixed.

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However, one 2017 review of acupuncture’s pain-relieving effects concluded that it was more effective that no treatment, non-insertive ‘sham’ acupuncture, or analgesic injections. The review included 13 different clinical trials on acupuncture for various types of pain. The types of pain included in the studies included:

  • Renal colic
  • Lower back pain
  • Dysmenorrhea (painful periods)
  • Knee osteoarthritis pain
  • Neck and shoulder pain
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Sore throat
  • Migraine

In most cases, pain relief was achieved within just 15–30 minutes following acupuncture treatment. The results of this review suggest that acupuncture is an effective treatment for pain and could play a significant role in its management. 

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