Chronic pain can be debilitating to live with and can interfere with all aspects of daily life. Pain is generally considered chronic if it lasts 6 months or more, and chronic pain may remain constant, or it can come and go. The quality of the pain can be tingling, jolting, burning, dull, aching or sharp.
The cause of chronic pain often isn’t well understood. There may be no evidence of disease or damage that points directly to pain. Or pain may remain after the original injury shows every indication of being healed. It can be due to a chronic condition, such as arthritis or fibromyalgia, but often there is still no clear understanding of the physical cause of the pain. Damage to a peripheral or spinal nerve may also lead to chronic pain, where the damaged nerve, not the original injury, is causing the pain. Nerve damage can result from accidents, infections or surgery.
Researchers think chronic pain may be partly caused by sensitization, a process where the nervous system amplifies and distorts pain, resulting in pain that is severe and out of proportion to the disease or original injury. Sensitization may affect all the pain-processing regions of your nervous system, including the sensing, feeling and thinking centers of your brain. When this occurs, chronic pain may be associated with emotional and psychological suffering.
Treatment for chronic pain often means managing the pain through over-the-counter pain relievers, prescription opioids, cortisone, or NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories). Unfortunately for many, medications often have undesirable side-effects and may offer only limited effectiveness for dealing with the pain. Other treatments may include physiotherapy, massage, chiropractic, counseling, and acupuncture, therapies which aim more at resolving the pain. Often, a combination of approaches is needed to effectively treat this problem.
Acupuncture is an excellent option for chronic pain. Although Western medicine has not yet uncovered the mechanisms of acupuncture, it is clear that acupuncture is very effective for treating all kinds of pain, both acute and chronic. This goes beyond the “placebo effect”, as acupuncture works just as well on animals (who bring no expectation to the treatment table). One of the reasons that acupuncture is good for pain is the way in which it stimulates the production of endorphins, the body’s natural pain relievers.
In addition, acupuncture focuses on correcting imbalances in the body and encouraging normal, healthy functioning of the body’s various systems, which may help the body to correct the sensitization process as described above, or changes or disruptions to the body as a result of injury or illness. In this way, it can help both to manage and relieve the pain in the short term, and help to address the underlying causes of the pain to help to resolve chronic pain over time.
In my practice, I have seen patients with chronic pain respond very positively to acupuncture, with a reduction in pain symptoms and the overall level of pain. As pain diminishes, acupuncture helps open the door for healing, allowing a person to regain aspects of their former lifestyle and quality of life. It is very rewarding to see patients who have lived with debilitating pain on a daily basis for many years begin to see improvements in their pain and to see their pain slowly resolve, as is often the case with acupuncture treatment. Although chronic pain is a complex problem, acupuncture is a treatment option certainly worth considering!
James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, Kelowna, BC.