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  • Dr. Mark Freund

A New treatment for Pain: Acupuncture

acupuncture for pain relief

You might be contemplating acupuncture treatment for low back pain and want to know whether it's right for you. Millions of Americans suffer from chronic pain. Family physicians play a significant role for many patients when it comes to treating pain. However, one study found that physicians feel that the training received in pain management was inadequate and therefore may feel uncomfortable in their ability to treat chronic pain effectively.

Acupuncture is an alternative medicine designed to provide treatment for many conditions and illnesses. Specifically, it’s becoming a popular and effective choice for treating pain. Many people still believe that acupuncture is only used in the context of balancing your energy flow system. But it’s become much more sophisticated, especially in western culture. Within the last decade, acupuncture and dry needling are two forms of alternative treatment options that have become increasingly popular. In this article, we’ll provide an in-depth overview of acupuncture and dry needling as it relates to pain management.

The Role of Acupuncture in Pain Management

Acupuncture is a technique of inserting very thin needles through your skin at strategic points of the body to stimulate muscles, connective tissues, and nerves. Most practitioners use acupuncture to treat pain. However, some may also use it as an overall wellness program, including stress management.

The practice of acupuncture is perceived differently based on eastern and western culture. Traditional Chinese medicine defines acupuncture as a technique for balancing life force or the flow of energy, also known as chi or qi. Inserting needles into specific points allows the energy flow to re-balance in your body. Incorrect energy flow or qi would lead to severe body pain and different illnesses. Acupuncture has been a major part of China’s healthcare system for over 3,000 years.

Conversely, western practitioners believe that acupuncture helps to stimulate the muscle, nerves, and connective tissues. Some are convinced that the stimulation provided by the needles boosts your body’s natural painkillers.

Many medical practitioners believe that stimulating these connective tissues, muscles, and nerves at specific body points helps to release pain. Through many studies, they have verified that acupuncture has many biological effects on the peripheral nerve system, central nerve system, and humoral factors and neurotransmitters, along with other chemical mediators.

  • Peripheral nervous system (PNS) - An intact PNS is necessary for a proper analgesic function or the painkiller effect of acupuncture.

  • Central nervous system (CNS) - this technique releases different opioid peptides in the CNS called neuropeptides.

  • Humoral factors and neurotransmitters - It significantly boosts the production of endogenous endorphin production and neurotransmitters. This includes dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine which are all responsible for relieving pain.

Conditions Commonly Treated by Acupuncture

Acupuncture is an effective alternative medicine for chronic pain and is used for a variety of conditions. In fact, one study found that acupuncture was found to provide better pain relief than no acupuncture.

It’s primarily designed to relieve discomfort associated with these diseases or conditions, including:

acupuncture points for chronic pain

Acupuncture for Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is typically defined as pain that lasts over six months and occurs in addition to the original health condition. Whether it’s another injury, illness, or surgery, chronic pain can result from a previous incident. Whatever the initial cause of the pain is, pain is a function of the nervous system.

For instance, if you suffer from low back pain, nerves in the area will detect and send signals on the pathway of the spinal cord and to the brain. The brain will process the signal and register it as pain in the lower back. As many medical treatments have failed, many practitioners are recommending alternative options, and many patients have seen transformative results.

Acupuncture Points for Chronic Pain

So how does acupuncture help chronic pain? Well, the trigger points are stimulated by the insertion of the needles, which releases chemicals from the brain, muscles, and spinal cord to offer a form of natural pain relief. Other chemicals like opioids (which act as pain relievers) and neurotransmitter hormones are released to shut off the pain. Additionally, electromagnetic impulses in the body are triggered. These activate the natural healing capabilities of the body and can speed up the recovery process. For chronic pain, a typical regimen might be 11 25-minute acupuncture sessions performed twice a week.

In a 2012 research, 20,000 people with chronic pain were tested. Some received real acupuncture treatment, some received a fake treatment, and others received no acupuncture treatment. The results were staggering. Patients who received acupuncture treatment experienced a 50% improvement in their chronic pain problems.

Acupuncture for Muscle Pain

There are many ways that acupuncture helps to relieve muscle pain. This technique improves blood flow to areas of the chronic pathology and area of injury, which stimulates the body’s ability to heal. Also, acupuncture works with your body’s chemistry to release specific chemicals that relieve pain. With modern science, practitioners use acupuncture to activate the signals to be properly sent to the brain or along the spinal cord to the body. This allows the muscle to function properly again and lessen the pain. Sometimes related techniques like gua sha or cupping are used in combination to help the muscles relax and improve blood flow.

Acupuncture for Knee Pain (Osteoarthritis)

Many people with osteoarthritis are used to mainstream therapies and medications to manage the debilitating effects of this condition. However, most find relief in acupuncture when used in conjunction with those treatments. The strategic placement of these thin needles can trigger endorphins and increase the production of cortisol, an anti-inflammatory hormone. Research has proven that the flow of these chemical aids in the reduction of the pain sensation. Acupuncture appears to be most effective in osteoarthritis, especially in the knee and spine areas. Results are commonly seen after three or more sessions. However, each case is unique to the individual, so it is important to consult with a chiropractor or physical therapist.

acupuncture for knee pain

Dry Needling for Pain Management

It’s easy to confuse dry needling with acupuncture. That’s because both techniques involve inserting very thin needles into your body. Acupuncture is done on the principle of promoting better energy flow. Often, needles are inserted in many areas that may seem unrelated to the actual problem. For example, a patient with facial pain may have needles inserted on their legs, arms and face. Furthermore, acupuncture isn’t only limited to treating pain. It can treat various conditions like addictions, allergies, nausea, fibromyalgia, and repetitive stress injuries.

Conversely, Dry needling is a treatment primarily used for relieving muscular pain specifically. Typically, physical therapists who have been certified and undergone extensive treatment with dry needling will perform the procedure.

These needles are positioned in trigger points of the tissue or muscle. In other words, these are areas of the body where there are knotted muscle tissues. There are many potential targets for dry needle procedures, such as trigger points, fascial tension, and scar tissue. Many movement impairments are due to muscle imbalances and stiff fascial tissue.

Dry needling aims to release the knot and relieve any associated spasms or muscle pain. As a result, it improves the range of motion by releasing the tense myofascial tissues. This technique is utilized to treat muscle pain, fibromyalgia pain, and sports injuries. Moreover, the treatment forces a hyper-contractile muscle unit to relax, and the needle tip stimulates the body’s own healing functions. Here are some of the benefits of dry needling:

Treats Latent and Active Trigger Points

Latent trigger points are areas within the muscle that cause little to no pain now but will be painful later on. Conversely, active trigger points are areas that are already tender or painful. During a treatment session, the thin needle penetrates the knotted tissue of latent and knotted tissue trigger points to improve circulation and release toxins to ease muscle strain. The release of the knotted trigger points will increase mobility and promote natural healing in the muscle.

Provides Effective Pain Relief

Patients with trigger points may experience transferred pain such as neck pain, jaw pain, back pain, and headaches. This causes many people to choose over-the-counter pain relievers. Dry needling is a minimally invasive treatment that helps to provide myofascial release, thereby eliminating pain. It could also help improve the chances of success from other treatments. For instance, dry needling can help the patient to feel less muscle pain and stiffness during their treatment or physical therapy sessions.

dry needling treatment

Safe and Reliable Treatment

When conducted by trained and qualified professionals, dry needling can have a profound effect. It’s highly regarded as a safe and effective procedure. The thin needle is injected into the exact trigger point in the targeted muscles, thereby causing an involuntary contraction of the fibers within the muscle. This results in a local twitch response.

Targeted Treatment Meaning Greater Effectiveness

Dry needling is much more targeted in approach compared to other treatment options. That’s why many physical therapists see the benefits of dry needling for back pain. For example, deep massage can relieve some of the symptoms associated with the condition, but it tends to be broader in its approach. Dry needling can target the precise area of the back pain to trigger a direct response to release pain-relieving chemicals.

Your chiropractor will perform a comprehensive examination to determine the exact location of your trigger points. Thin needles are inserted in the precise location of the trigger points to ensure meaningful and long-lasting relief. Unlike acupuncture, where it can be based on concepts of inner energy, dry needling is performed through a scientific understanding of pain pathology and anatomy.

Used in Many Cases

Dry needling is typically used in conjunction with other forms of therapies, including strength and stretch exercises and deep massages. This helps to relieve pain, restore function and prevent future problems.

For example, dry needling may be used to get rid of trigger points that could be inhibiting your movement. Therefore, a physical therapist may recommend movement therapy and exercise to help stretch and strengthen the muscle.

Also, dry needling is utilized for tissue manipulation and other modalities to address chronic neck or back pain. Furthermore, dry needling provides favorable responses, including increasing blood flow and oxygenation in the body.

Acupuncture Treatment for Pain Relief & Management

Acupuncture has long had a stigma among people as a “voodoo science.” However, it’s no longer an exotic curiosity. It’s now widely accepted among medical practices. Over 10 million acupuncture treatments are performed annually in just the U.S. alone.

Also, the World Health Organization has an extensive list of conditions and diseases (mostly pain-related) that is treatable by acupuncture. The evidence continues to rise in favor of acupuncture as more research and experimentation are being done.

The Acupuncture Evidence Project reviewed the effectiveness of acupuncture treatment for 122 conditions spanning over 14 clinical areas. Of those 122 conditions, 117 were found to have some effect. Acupuncture showed stronger effectiveness for some conditions than others. It’s considered safe and cost-effective, especially when performed by a well-trained practitioner.

In their research, they’ve found a very high positive effect of acupuncture for the following conditions:

  • Knee osteoarthritis

  • Migraine prevention

  • Postoperative pain

  • Postoperative nausea and vomiting

  • Chronic low back pain

  • Allergic rhinitis

  • Headache (chronic and tension-type)

  • Chemotherapy-induced vomiting and nausea

Other pain-related conditions that also exhibited a high positive affect (slightly less than the ones above) are the following:

acupuncture pain relief points

  • Acute low back pain

  • Cancer pain

  • Neck pain

  • Sciatica

  • Labor pain

  • Temporomandibular pain

  • Shoulder pain

  • Shoulder impingement

  • Chronic pelvic pain

  • Plantar heel pain

  • Lateral elbow pain

The evidence isn’t conclusive, but it’s certainly widely accepted and used by many patients and practitioners across the world.

If you’re convinced that acupuncture may work for you, you may be wondering, “how long will it take for acupuncture to work?

It’s important to distinguish the difference between short-term and long-term pain relief. Each acupuncture session usually lasts between 20 minutes to an hour. The pain relief resulting from the session usually lasts between a few hours and three days. However, the frequency and consistency of the acupuncture treatment are key. As you continue your treatment weekly, the intensity and frequency of the pain will decrease. At some point, you’ll start to feel more confident in moving, and pain will go away.

Both acupuncture and dry needling are beneficial in different ways. If you’re experiencing chronic pain, it’s important to seek help immediately. If you’re curious to see how these techniques can help you, schedule an appointment with our expert practitioners at Natural Care Chiropractic today.


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