As an acupuncturist, I regularly see people in pain; people with arthritis, blown out backs, sprained ankles, sciatica, headaches, and those recovering from surgery. If you’ve ever suffered from a painful condition, you know that your particular pain is unique. It can be dull and achy, sharp and stabbing, throbbing, burning, or it can feel electric. The pain may come and go or be ever-present. It may wake you at night or change with the weather.
What causes pain? There are actually a number of conditions that can result in a world of hurt, and in some instances, pain can have more than one cause. Among them:
Ischemia. This is a big word meaning that there is an inadequate supply of blood to an organ or a part of your body. For example, during a heart attack the lack of blood flow not only causes pain, but can also damage the heart muscle.
Inflammation. Your body has a protective mechanism to remove harmful pathogens and irritants from an area and promote healing, which is inflammation. It’s a natural process, but when inflammation gets out of control, it can cause some serious pain. Examples of inflammation include arthritis, gout, and tendonitis.
Trauma. Pretty self explanatory—when you fall down, it hurts. Cuts, bruises, sprains, breaks, and surgery are all considered to be trauma.
Pressure or entrapment. An example of this kind of pain is something called Piriformis Syndrome. The piriformis is a muscle in your butt, which when it spasms (painful by itself), it can press on your sciatic nerve, causing pain all the way down your leg.
Nerve damage. Your nerves transmit pain signals to your brain. Nerve pain can be very intense (think dentistry without Novocaine), or can cause burning, numbness, and tingling, from conditions such as peripheral neuropathy, sciatica, and shingles.
Infection. Foreign invaders and cooties, such as viruses, bacteria, and parasites can cause infections, which tend to feel hot and painful. Strep throat is an example of a common infection, and it can cause a seriously sore throat.
The Chinese have a saying, “If there’s pain, there’s stagnation”, and in Chinese medicine, the cause of pain at the most basic level is some kind of blockage or stagnation. Essentially, everything in your body should flow smoothly, whether it’s energy, blood, fluids, the digestive process, urine, or your menstrual cycle. When that flow is interrupted, pain occurs. For example, a swollen, purple sprained ankle is a blockage of fluid, blood, and energy. A sinus infection is an example of stagnation of phlegm and heat (I know, gross). And that achy stressed-out feeling in your upper back? In Chinese medicine, it’s considered stagnation of energy and blood caused by the tightness in those muscles.
For an acupuncturist treating a patient in pain, restoring the body’s natural flow is job one. This can be done through the use of acupuncture, heat therapy, a kind of massage called Tui Na, cupping, and even through the use of herbs. In most cases, a practitioner will begin with acupuncture, as some carefully placed needles can quickly help improve the flow of energy, blood, and fluids; can clear heat; and can facilitate overall healing in the affected area.
While all this may sound a little out there, scientific studies support the theory that acupuncture affects brain chemistry in a positive way. Considerable research suggests that acupuncture releases endorphins and other naturally-occurring chemicals in your brain that reduce pain, facilitate sleep, and provide feelings of euphoria. Furthermore, while Acupuncture and Chinese medicine have a different spin on pain than Western medicine, it can be incredibly effective. In many cases, people who have tried everything else to alleviate their pain ultimately turn to acupuncture and find relief they never thought possible.