Acupuncture and Its Place in Pain Managment

September 30, 2022
Lisa Knickmeyer MATCM, Dipl. OM, L.Ac., FABORM

We are currently seeing a chronic pain epidemic across this country. Acupuncture is a safe, effective, and drug-free treatment for most pain conditions such as TMJ, back, neck, and shoulder pain, and fibromyalgia. Acupuncture stimulates the body's own pain-relieving mechanisms and is part of the solution to today's chronic pain epidemic.

Acupuncture has gained popularity in Western culture and around the world. It involves the insertion of thin needles into the skin to stimulate nerves, muscles, and connective tissues throughout the body with the goal of alleviating pain, tension, and stress. More broadly, acupuncture is actually a family of different procedures. Conceptually, it is believed to stimulate the body’s meridians, or energy-carrying channels, in an attempt to correct imbalances and to restore health. These benefits, are thought to be derived from the proximity of acupuncture points with nerves through intracellular calcium ions. Acupuncture has been demonstrated to enhance endogenous opiates, such as dynorphin, endorphin, encephalin, and release corticosteroids, relieving pain and enhancing the healing process. When compared to traditional methods of pain management, more studies are warranted in order to establish the efficacy of acupuncture and pain management.

A 1998 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that medical doctors refer their patients to acupuncturists more than any other “alternative” care provider. The same study also revealed that 51% of medical doctors believe acupuncture to be efficacious and of value.

A pair of new studies, one conducted at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, the other at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, have demonstrated objective evidence that acupuncture works as a form of pain relief.

“It is important for Western medicine to recognize that these acupuncture points really mean something in regard to pain relief,” Dr. Lee, the main author of the acupuncture study at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, concluded. “So many people with pain, whether from cancer, headache or a chronic, unexplained condition, rely on medications such as morphine, which can become addicting. Acupuncture has no side effects, and other studies have shown the pain relief it provides can last for months.”

One of the ways we study the scientific effects of acupuncture therapy is by understanding the cascade of hormonal activity during an acupuncture session, and how the many different systems of the body that respond to this stimulation. A 1999 study published in the American Journal of Physiology made a connection between acupuncture and the release of neurochemicals called endorphins. The scientists injected a drug, which inhibits endorphin release into patients prior to their receiving acupuncture to reduce their high blood pressure. The patients who received the injection had little to no reduction in their high blood pressure, whereas those who did not receive the injection saw a reduction. This links acupuncture to endorphin release.

Many kinds of stimulating activities such as sex, exercise, food, and acupuncture cause the release of endorphins from the brain. Endorphins are responsible for the relaxation and mood-lifting experiences people have during these activities. As well, endorphins are also effective at reducing levels of pain. Nerve and hormone receptors throughout the body receive endorphins just as effectively as they do morphine or other strong opiate drugs prescribed for pain, though without the side effects of the pharmaceutical drugs. Additionally, many other studies have shown acupuncture to naturally restore levels of other neurochemicals including serotonin, dopamine and melatonin; making acupuncture treatments very helpful for depression and sleep disorders.

Acupuncture is an effective tool for treating common sports injuries such as rotator-cuff injuries, tendonitis, muscle strain, running injuries including planter fasciitis and patellar tendonitis, weight-lifting injuries like back strain and herniated discs. Additionally, acupuncture may increase stamina and improve athletic performance.