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  • Writer's pictureHelen Lucy Reid

I'm in pain. Can acupuncture help?

Updated: Jul 5, 2022

Polarised light image under the microsope of crystals of salicin marked with the letter X.  Crystals are shades of purple, magenta, yellow and brown.

Firstly, if you are in pain please let your doctor know. Secondly, there are times when doctors cannot help, when medication does not help, when diagnostic tests draw a blank and when after pursuing all avenues of medical advice, patients are told that there is nothing more to be done. There are also times when medics can only ease the pain to a certain point and the patient may feel that they need additional support with complementary medicine. In fact, in some situations, NICE (the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) recommends that clinicians consider referring adult patients for acupuncture in cases of chronic primary pain. I think we can all agree that that is an extremely high up and trusted backer advocating for the power of acupuncture for chronic pain. This article looks at how acupuncture can treat in the management of chronic pain in adults where there isn't an underlying condition adequately accounting for the pain or its impact.

Well-regarded scientific studies document acupuncture's effectiveness in the management of chronic pain. When you meet your acupuncturist for the first time, they will assess your pain taking into account evidence from clinical studies as well as seeing where you fit within the theories of traditional Chinese medicine. Your acupuncturist will assess where muscles can be targeted directly with trigger-point or dry-needling acupuncture. They will assess the flow of qi in your body and the impact of outside influences on your system. They will assess the quality of your pain, is it dull, sharp, throbbing, searing, fixed, moving, rises upwards, flows downwards?

If your pain has a traditional diagnosis based on the flow of qi in your body then it may be that:

  • your qi is too weak to flow;

  • you qi is in excess and is flowing erratically;

  • you qi is too weak to keep the qi upright and therefore letting the qi drop down; and/or

  • your qi is out of kilter and and is flowing dramatically upwards.

If your pain has a traditional diagnosis based on outside influences on your system, it may be that:

  • your system has become overheated and has become hot and overflowing;

  • cold has entered your system and it has become slow and immobile;

  • your system has become cloggy and damp and unable to move;

  • wind (or outside movement) has entered your system, causing unregulated flow and disorder;

  • your system has had damp for a long time so that has started to solidify causing blockages or heat; and/or

  • your emotional world is out of balance and has influenced your system and its natural flow.

For each of these diagnoses based on traditional theory, your acupuncturist will choose a selection of acupoints that will help to bolster your qi and system - to either get it moving, to get it warmed up or cooled down, to get it to calm down, move down, move up, move out or to help balance your emotional world. It often takes some time for pain to shift entirely, but in my experience, patients often report changes in their symptoms early on in their treatment or report that they feel better able to manage their symptoms.

Your acupuncturist may give you advice for changes to make in your lifestyle or exercises or qi gong movements to work on in between appointments. Now, yes, I know change is hard. Sometimes patients are ready to make changes in their routine and will actively ask me "what can I do at home about this?". Other times, patients need support to begin to open up to hearing what they could work on or start to think about. A good acupuncturist will be able to gently sense this and will meet you at your level, providing you with support and advice for wherever you are in that moment.

Please feel free to drop me a message if you would like to discuss whether treatment for your pain might benefit from a course of acupuncture. I promise to give you an honest account of what acupuncture can treat and its limits.

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