Acupuncture for Pain

What Is Acupuncture for Pain Management?

Acupuncture has been used as a treatment modality for over 3,000 years in China and throughout Asia. While acupuncture does indeed have an ancient history, it has become both accepted and prescribed as an effective treatment for many painful conditions.

Both the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization has acknowledged acupuncture as an effective treatment modality for conditions involving pain and nausea.

The principle behind acupuncture involves a type of energy called qi. The qi flows along acupuncture channels or meridians of the body. There are 12 meridians on the body that are divided into two groups—yin and yang, representing masculine and feminine. There are three yang meridians of the upper extremities, three yang meridians of the lower extremities, three yin meridians of the lower extremities, and three yin meridians of the upper extremities. There are eight additional meridians that are not designated yin or yang. Block ages and imbalances in the flow of qi result in disease and symptoms. The flow of qi can be corrected by inserting fine needles at specified points along the meridians.

Acupuncture was first in the spotlight of the U.S. public in 1971. A New York Times reporter named James Reston was covering Henry Kissinger on a trip to China in 1971 and fell ill to acute appendicitis. His appendix was removed in a modern Chinese hospital using general anesthesia. However for his post-surgical pain he was offered and accepted acupuncture to help alleviate his symptoms. He wrote an article in the NY Times July 25th 1971 detailing his experience.

Types of Acupuncture for Pain Management

Single use, sterilized, disposable needles are used in acupuncture. It is important to note acupuncture needles are solid and very thin which allows them to slide into the skin without pulling epidermis or foreign material into the body. The process of the treatment is typically not painful; most patients do not even feel the hair-thin needles as they are inserted or tapped in. In fact, many find the experience relaxing. Others become energized by the treatment. There are many subtle differences in styles and point selections. Traditional stimulation of the needles involves physical tapping, rotating, or warming the needles with incense called moxibustion.  Electrical stimulation of the needles dates back to the 1930s. Location of the acupuncture points typically involves some needles at the local area of involvement, but also at distal points related to the meridians that are involved. Typical treatment sessions last for about 20—30 minutes.

Conditions Related to Acupuncture for Pain Management

New research showed that adenosine plays a large role in the pain relieving benefits of acupuncture. Adenosine, a molecule that influences inflammation and sleep, also acts as an endogenous opiate. Using mice with injured paws, the scientists first demonstrated that adenosine was released during acupuncture. In mice that didn’t have adenosine receptors there was no relief from pain. A group of mice were given an approved leukemia drug that lengthens the amount of time that adenosine sticks around.

With the drug, the animals experienced relief for three times as long: three hours instead of an hour.

A 2006 Mayo Clinic study for fibromyalgia found that acupuncture significantly improved symptoms of this condition. Symptomatic improvement was not restricted to pain relief and was most significant for fatigue and anxiety. This type of treatment is also common for those suffering from sports injuries.

Gate Control Theory is another theory behind the effectiveness of acupuncture. This theorizes that acupuncture activates sensory receptors, which will block pain receptors and thus “gate out” painful stimuli.


The NIH Consensus Conference on acupuncture in 1997 concluded: “There is sufficient evidence of acupuncture’s value to expand its use into conventional medicine and encourage further studies of its physiology and clinical value.”

If you are experiencing chronic pain, you may want to consider speaking to your doctor about adding acupuncture to your pain management treatment program.


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