Acupuncture has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years but has only gained steam in western countries like the United States in the last 100-200 years. The theory behind acupuncture is that your body has two forces - yin and yang - that must be in balance to achieve optimal health. When they aren’t in balance, it’s because there is a blockage in the flow of your qi: the energy thought to regulate your spiritual, emotional, mental and physical health. It’s believed that this imbalance is what causes disease, and acupuncture is how the blockages are removed.
In practical terms, it’s believed that balance is obtained by having an acupuncture practitioner insert small needles into your skin at various points of your body to stimulate the release of the body’s natural painkillers and to affect areas in your brain that process pain.
“Although acupuncture has been around for centuries, we still don’t fully understand the exact mechanisms of how acupuncture works,” said David Virgil, MD, a family medicine doctor at Banner Health Center in Buckeye, AZ. For treating pain with acupuncture, there are three main models posited, said Dr. Virgil, who practices Auricular Acupuncture as part of his family medicine practice:
- Gait Theory of Pain: Acupuncture is thought to stimulate inhibitory nerve fibers for a short period, thus reducing transmission of the pain signal to the brain.
- Endorphin Model: Clinical studies have shown that inserting acupuncture needles into specific acupuncture points on the body triggers the production of endorphins, which help alleviate pain.
- Neurotransmitter Model: Research in animals has found that acupuncture can balance brain neurons and the chemicals serotonin and norepinephrine to help treat depression, anxiety, and addiction.
Will acupuncture treatment work for my pain?
There have been many studies showing that acupuncture can help with chronic pain treatment and other physical and mental ailments, according to Dr. Virgil. “Studies done by the National Institute of Health (NIH) suggest that acupuncture works well on chronic low back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, and headache disorders like migraines,” said Dr. Virgil. “It has also been shown to help with temporomandibular (TMJ) disorders and chronic pelvic pain disorders, and even with reducing nausea and vomiting.”
How should I proceed with acupuncture?
There are two rules of thumb when pursuing acupuncture treatments: Never use it in replacement of conventional care recommended by your doctor and make sure you choose an experienced practitioner.
Before you start acupuncture treatments, be sure to have your pain evaluated by your doctor. “Acupuncture can be a useful method of treating the chronic pain that affects millions of Americans, but it should only be used as part of a multidisciplinary approach to treatment,” said Dr. Virgil. “Acupuncture should not be used in replacement of conventional medical care.”
Choosing the right practitioner is critical. “When performed by a well-trained practitioner, using only sterile needles, acupuncture is completely safe,” said Dr. Virgil. According to the NIH, improperly performed acupuncture can cause serious side effects. Licensing requirements for acupuncturists vary by state so a good place to start your search is by asking a doctor familiar with acupuncture or with the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).
For more information on pursuing acupuncture for the treatment of your chronic pain, schedule an appointment with a Banner Health doctor.