Acupuncture for Pain

Acupuncture is best known for its ability to successfully treat pain. Pain itself is not a diagnosis, but rather an indication or warning that there is a problem somewhere in the body. Many times the exact location of pain points to where the problem is, as in the case of elbow pain above an inflamed tendon. But in other situations the site of pain may be related to problems far away, as in leg pain resulting from a herniated disk pushing on a nerve in the back. 

The intensity of the pain usually indicates or warns how severe the problem is. Each person has a different pain threshold, but pain levels that increase or do not lessen over time point to something that needs attention. 

And the circumstances surrounding the onset of the pain are just as important. Was there an accident or incident? Or did the pain gradually develop over a course of time or during a certain period of life? 

The characteristics of pain give important information about what is causing the body to send this signal. Once noticed, it is important to address the underlying problem that forced the body to send a pain message, not just turn down the discomfort. Otherwise the body will send out other warning signals until the core problem is corrected. 

How does acupuncture stop pain? 

There are many therapies that attempt to stop pain. Most of them mask the pain while hoping the body is able to heal itself or push the body to heal faster while offering limited pain relief. Acupuncture is an extremely powerful and effective approach to treat pain because it decreases pain levels as it stimulates the body’s healing response. Acupuncture resolves pain by affecting several pain pathways and healing responses at the same time: 

    * raise endorphin levels and diminish the nervous system’s pain response

    * decrease inflammation and swelling

    * relax muscles and stop spasms

    * increase circulation to the local area 

How many treatments will I need? 

This varies considerably based on the specific condition being treated. Each person receives an individualized treatment plan based on age, past medical history, lifestyle, treatment goals and current pain status. Generally speaking however, acute pain (less than 3 months duration) is often resolved in a short series of treatments spaced close together and chronic pain requires consistent regular treatment to achieve long-term pain relief. 

How else will acupuncture help me deal with my pain? 

Almost every person finds acupuncture treatments to be very relaxing. Many do not expect this effect, especially dealing with painful conditions, but acupuncture balances various parts of the body together. This results in a person feeling calm, peaceful and very relaxed. Pain is stressful and can wear someone down causing irritability, tension and insomnia. By relaxing the whole person, acupuncture also helps eliminate these other negative aspects of pain. And it does so in a natural way, with no negative side effects. 

Acupuncture also looks at the entire person, not just the one part that hurts. This means an acupuncturist will offer suggestions for individual lifestyle improvements regarding exercise, supplements and diet, sleeping and stress management techniques to help a person improve health and decrease pain.


Arthritis simply means inflammation of the joints. There are two main types of arthritis – osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis is characterized by degeneration of articular cartilage, hypertrophy of bone at the margins and changes in synovial membranes. This is the type of arthritis where the cartilage in joints wears away and leads to pain, weakness and deformities of the joints. That is why osteoarthritis is also known as degenerative arthritis or degenerative joint disease. Rheumatoid arthritis, however, is an inflammatory disease, thought to be caused by a mistaken immune system attack on the joints (an autoimmune disorder). It is known more for hot, swollen, painful joints with decreased range of motion. 

Both types of arthritis are common problems for many Americans, especially those individuals age 60 or older. Not only does it interfere with daily routines once it sets in, but it progressively worsens as one ages. Unfortunately, arthritis culminates in severe debilitation and joint deformation. The reason arthritis affects so many people to such a severe degree is that there are very few effective treatments for it. For the most part sufferers are given anti-inflammatory drugs. When these do not work, surgery and joint replacement are the next option. Those inflicted with arthritis are offered limited help with symptoms, and very few treatments to stop the diseases’ progression.


Acupuncture can increase blood circulation to joints, and thus their absorption of calcium as well as the removal of noxious elements. It can also increase the production of synovial fluid to keep joints better lubricated. In addition it reduces inflammation and swelling as it stops pain. These well-documented effects of acupuncture are what allow it to treat both types of arthritis. Acupuncture treatments can therefore eliminate the symptoms of arthritis and slow down the progression of the disease. And it is able to do this without any of the long-term side effects associated with most anti-inflammatory drugs used for arthritis.


Back pain is by far the most common reason people seek a health care practitioner, with 80% of the world’s population reporting back pain at least once in their lives. In the United States, chronic low back pain is the single highest category of scheduled doctor visits. 

The main causes of back pain come from strains (tears in muscles caused by sudden force), sprains (overstretching one or more ligaments in the back), herniated disks (a disc that bulges out of its normal place between two vertebrae, putting pressure on nerves) and sciatica (term that describes pain extending from the low back down into the buttocks and leg due to irritation of a larger nerve in the spine). These can happen from injuries, improper lifting, poor posture, weakening of supporting muscles and ligaments and degenerative changes. 


Acupuncture is best known for its ability to stop pain in general. It is effective in treating both acute and chronic back pain because it lessens the pain response locally as it relaxes nearby muscles. A negative pain cycle is broken when muscle spasms stop, adjacent muscle groups no longer compensate, range of motion then increases as the pain levels decrease. Acupuncture accomplishes this by: 

    * relax muscles: which slows spasms until they release

    * decrease local inflammation by increasing local blood circulation

    * reduce swelling

    * stimulates the release of natural endorphins that diminish the pain response 


Acute Back Pain

In an acute situation, you need to first determine how severe the injury is. If it is serious, or you are unsure, call 911 or go straight to the nearest hospital for proper evaluation. If the acute back pain is not that severe, the sooner you receive acupuncture treatments, the better the results. The reason is simple: it boosts the body’s natural healing mechanisms while inhibiting negative pain cycles from ever starting. This enables acupuncture to drastically reduce recovery time and stop injuries from becoming chronic. 

Chronic Back Pain

Back pain that continues or lingers more than 3 months becomes chronic. It is important to know why the pain is there. Narrowing of the spine or a tumor pressing on lumbar spinal nerves is a medical emergency. Therefore it is recommended to receive a complete Western medical evaluation and diagnosis, including x-rays and MRIs when necessary.

Chronic back pain that has been properly evaluated, and that does not respond to conventional treatments, almost always improves with acupuncture treatments. It does not matter how long the pain has persisted, acupuncture can still provide noticeable positive improvements, if not complete resolution of the back pain. And this is accomplished without the use of any over-the-counter medications or pharmaceuticals.


Acupuncture treatments are specifically tailored to each individual depending on age, gender, lifestyle, past medical history and current health status. This guarantees a treatment plan that meets each person’s exact needs, but makes it more difficult to generalize overall responses. Even so, it is safe to say that acute back pain is usually successfully treated in 2 to 5 treatments over a 1 to 3 week period.

It is more difficult to generalize the length of treatment for chronic back pain because medications, prolonged inactivity, low morale & surgeries complicate treatment. Regardless, a person should notice a positive change in his/her back pain within the first few treatments.  From there, an accurate prognosis for complete resolution of the pain can be given.


Heel spurs and plantar fascitis are commonly connected together when discussing heel pain, but they are not the same thing. A heel spur is a calcium deposit on the calcaneus or heel bone. It is diagnosed by x-rays which show a protrusion of bone, off the heel. Plantar fascia is the connective tissue surrounding the muscles of the sole of the foot running from the heel to the ball of the foot. It helps maintain the arch of the foot and transmits weight across the foot with activity. Plantar fascitis is an inflammation of this tissue and presents as pain on the bottom of the foot. While 70% of patients with plantar fascitis have heel spurs, 50% of patients with heel spurs do not have plantar fascitis. Therefore it is not known for certain if one diagnosis is dependent or due to the other.

The main symptom that patients report is severe pain when they first stand in the morning. The pain may subside after a few minutes but usually returns later in the day after prolonged standing or activity. Pain may be anywhere on the sole of the foot but commonly manifests on the front and bottom of the heel. It is most often associated in rapid weight gain, prolonged periods of standing or an increase in athletic activity (especially in runners).


Acupuncture can help to relax the muscles and connective tissue of the foot, decrease inflammation and stimulate the body to release endorphins. This moderates the pain response as healing accelerates.

It is important to recognize and adjust any lifestyle factors that may contribute to the heel pain. Decreasing physical activity, limiting the amount of time spent standing or addressing weight issues is often helpful. In addition, stretching the calf muscles on a regular basis and examining one’s footwear is useful.

Combining acupuncture, lifestyle adjustments and limiting the amount of time standing can provide long lasting relief from heel and foot pain. Yet often people compensate for the heel pain by walking differently and changing their posture. This leads to pain in other parts of the body such as the legs, hips and lower back. Acupuncture treatments can help “re-balance” the body by releasing tension in all related parts of the body while focusing on the source of the problem – the feet.


The median nerve travels from your forearm into the hand through a small canal or opening in the wrist – “the carpal tunnel”. The bottom and sides of this canal are formed by bones, while the top of the canal is covered by a ligament. Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when the median nerve is compressed or squeezed as it passes through this opening into the wrist. Trauma or injury may cause an increase in pressure on the nerve as it passes under the ligament in the wrist. Repetitive motions can also lead to swelling in this area. And in some people the carpal tunnel is just smaller than in others.

Regardless of the cause, the symptoms are the same: tingling, numbness, shooting pain, loss of strength or decreased dexterity in the hand and fingers. A common scenario is a person wakes in the middle of the night with numbness in the hand. A shake of the hand and it goes away, allowing the person to go back to sleep. Then at work a few fingers tingle from time to time. The sensations come and go, but eventually become constant with tingling, pain and numbness that become difficult to ignore.

Carpal tunnel syndrome usually begins progressively, that is, it starts with small symptoms that gradually become more noticeable and last longer. It is usually diagnosed based on a person’s presenting symptoms and orthopedic tests. If symptoms are severe, a nerve conduction test can be done to quantify the degree to which the nerve is compromised.


Before any therapy begins a person should first try to resolve the symptoms on his or her own. The first line of treatment is to wear a wrist brace or splint at night. Most people flex the wrist while sleeping, which antagonizes the condition. By keeping the wrist straight during prolonged rest there is a better chance of reducing the pressure in the carpal tunnel.

Will acupuncture help?

Acupuncture is often a successful treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome. It aims to decrease the local swelling and inflammation in the carpal tunnel itself, while relaxing the muscles of the forearm. There are several different acupuncture treatments for carpal tunnel syndrome, including local needling, the use of electrical stimulation, moxibustion (an herbal heat therapy) and distal needling (or needling connected but distant parts of the body). The technique and treatment chosen by an acupuncturist depends on a person’s body type and related circumstances (ex. history of injury, arthritis, circulation, etc.).