Monday Medical: In pain? Try acupuncture
June 4, 2017
For people suffering from chronic pain — or any pain for that matter — there's one treatment worth trying: acupuncture.
Acupuncture has been used to relieve pain for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine. And, in the United States, it's gaining popularity. In February, the American College of Physicians endorsed acupuncture as a non-invasive treatment for lower back pain.
"That was a big deal," said Kelley McDaneld, licensed acupuncturist and Diplomate of Oriental Medicine with Yampa Valley Medical Center's Integrated Health. "They basically said doctors shouldn't consider opioids as an option for chronic lower back pain unless patients have failed other options, such as acupuncture, for treating pain."
Below, McDaneld answers some of the most common questions about acupuncture and pain relief.
How does acupuncture relieve pain?
Acupuncture has been shown to increase the body's natural endorphins, or "feel-good" hormones, and impact levels of chemicals in the brain that can affect pain perception. Circulation increases blood flow to areas that are needled, which can help with healing.
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From a Chinese medicine perspective, acupuncture can help unblock areas where blood flow or the life force energy, also known as Qi, have been blocked.
How well does it work?
That depends on the person.
"Everyone is wired differently. There are people that it works really well for and others it doesn't work for," McDaneld said. "You really don't know until you give it a try."
But McDaneld and coworker Lisa Thornhill, also a licensed acupuncturist and Diplomate of Oriental Medicine with YVMC, have had many patients for whom acupuncture provides much-needed relief.
For some patients, that may mean pain is decreased significantly, allowing for a more active lifestyle. For others, it may make it possible to reduce the use of pain medications.
"My patients consistently tell me that they feel so much better mentally and emotionally throughout the treatment process and that it's easier for them to cope with their pain," Thornhill said.
And for people who are still skeptical, McDaneld likes to point out that, if acupuncture didn't work, it wouldn't have stood the test of time.
"Acupuncture has been around well over 3,000 years, and it's been used for pain conditions, as well as many other physical ailments," McDaneld said. "It would not still be in existence if it did not work."
How many treatments are needed?
It's possible to experience pain relief after an initial visit, but it usually takes six to eight visits through the course of a month or two. For chronic pain, a monthly visit might be needed to keep the pain at bay.
"In general, someone who's had chronic pain for months or years will require more treatments to see significant benefits," McDaneld said.
Is it common to treat pain with acupuncture?
At least half of McDaneld's patients have a primary complaint of musculoskeletal pain.
"It's a big portion of acupuncture practice," McDaneld said. In fact, acupuncture has been a part of YVMC's pain management program since 2006.
Does it hurt? And how about those needles?
Extremely fine, stainless steel needles are used. Each needle is used only once, then is disposed of in a Sharps container.
Acupuncture should not be overly painful.
"You might feel a brief ache or zing when the needles are inserted, but that dissipates quickly," McDaneld said.
Sometimes when treating chronic pain, the pain will intensify for a short period right after treatment. But by the next day, a patient will often experience relief.
Still unsure? Since acupuncture is relatively affordable and minimally invasive, it can be a good option to try.
"Acupuncture really is relaxing, which is helpful, since stress heightens pain," McDaneld said. "Most people in our modern day society are under some sort of stress. If you can relieve that stress, a lot of times, the pain levels go down."
Susan Cunningham writes for Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.