Chronic pain in our body can present in many different areas and with varying intensity. It is common for chronic pain to be the result a specific injury such as a lower back disc trauma or arthritis, causing debilitating back and sciatic pain. Alternatively, chronic pain may be the result of a specific treatment, like chemo or radiation therapy. Peripheral neuropathy (needle-like pain experienced in the hands and feet) is a common side effect of such treatments. But much of the chronic pain I treat in the clinic is idiopathic, meaning it has no obvious cause. Migraines or fibromyalgia (whole body pain) are examples of conditions that are difficult to bio-medically explain and therefore treat.
Traditional Chinese Medicine Approach
When dealing with chronic pain, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) will not only pay close attention to the traits of the pain but also evaluate the overall constitutional health of a person. More often than not pain is associated with Qi (energy) stagnation or blockage. The causes of Qi stagnation vary but may include stress, physical trauma, diet, environment and many more. Often the potential causes of pain may seem quite random, but when addressing the body holistically signs, symptoms and history start to form a clearer picture. By using diagnostic tools such as looking at the tongue, feeling the pulse, palpating an area and discussing the nature of the complaint a Chinese medicine diagnosis can be made. Often a disharmony within the body can be detected and be linked to reasons why pain is apparent. Then it is important for a TCM practitioner to formulate a treatment strategy.
If someone is experiencing an acute intense episode of their chronic pain, the intention of our treatment will always be to provide relief as quickly as possible. This will usually involve a number of acupuncture treatments within a short period of time, often daily or every second day for three to four treatments. Treatments may be coupled with mobilisation and pressure point massage if appropriate. Acupuncture may be applied locally to the pain area or, if pain is particularly intense, needling away from the site of pain will provide better results.
A common acupuncture technique called the balancing method involves needling on the opposite side of the body to a problem area and choosing correlating channels of Qi or meridians. This technique can be particularly effective at breaking a pain cycle. If the initial cluster of treatments provide pain relief, subsequent treatments can be suggested weekly or fortnightly and then on a needs basis. Once the pain has settled, it allows the focus to shift from pain management to pain prevention. This may involve Chinese herbal medicine, dietary changes and discussions based on stress management and dealing with fatigue.
Below are some current research showing the efficacy of acupuncture treating chronic pain.
The clinical efficiency of acupuncture in preventing migraine attacks and its effect on serotonin levels
M Biçer, D Bozkurt, M Çabalar
Acupuncture for oxaliplatin chemotherapy–induced peripheral neuropathy in colon cancer: A retrospective case series
B Valentine-Davis, LH Altshuler – Medical Acupuncture, 2015
Pain management with acupuncture in osteoarthritis: a systematic review and meta-analysis
T Manyanga, M Froese, R Zarychanski 2014
By Nick Conquest
Gardenvale Traditional Chinese Medicine