Looks Painful, Feels Great: Acupuncture for Chronic Musculoskeletal Pain & More!

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What is Acupuncture? 

Acupuncture is a 3000-year-old practice that dates back to the Shang dynasty in China and involves the strategic, painless placement of needles across a patient’s body to promote emotional and physical healing. The use of incredibly thin needles, called pins, achieve these outcomes by stimulating their central nervous system. The traditional view of Chinese medicine is that one’s chi, or vital life force, is balanced by targeting points along the body’s twelve major meridians, or energy pathways. Scientifically, it is hypothesized that this precise stimulation results in the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. Such a release prompts feelings of relaxation and promotes healing, together contributing to the betterment of one’s mental and physical health. 

Does Acupuncture Hurt?

There are many misconceptions about acupuncture that stem from an exaggerated and inaccurate portrayal of non-Western medicine techniques in comedy movies and sitcom television shows. In these depictions, such as the “Acupuncture Gone Wrong” skit from Saturday Night Live, the practice of acupuncture is often performed by unknowledgeable practitioners who then randomly jab an unlucky character with long needles for multiple hours. This sort of humor surrounding acupuncture is always at the expense of the treatment’s reputation, inaccurately portraying the practice as pointless and self-contradictory. 

In reality, this practice is nearly the opposite of how it appears on screen. Sure, it may appear you scared a porcupine by the end of a session––but that doesn’t mean the pins will feel anything like quills would. In fact, many patients fall asleep, and the application of pins can hardly be felt, if at all. Additionally, the science behind acupuncture is no guessing game and requires careful application of only five to twenty needles per session. In the United States, an aspiring acupuncturist must attend three years of graduate school, complete over 600 hours of clinical training, and decide if they wish to pursue increasingly popular doctoral training. After all, there are 361 points with which they must be very familiar (though, traditional practitioners at Johns Hopkins believe there may be over 2,000). 

Can Acupuncture Help You?

Acupuncture has been around far longer than any Western medicine techniques and has therefore built quite a resume for itself. Though most notably known for treating chronic musculoskeletal pain , according to the National Institutes of Health, the practice has been deemed effective in treating many other ailments and conditions. Highlights from this growing list includes headaches, addiction, menstrual cramps, nausea, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, stroke rehabilitation, and even asthma. Recent studies have also found that the immune system is boosted following regular treatment, as indicated by increases in red blood cell counts and enhanced leukocyte activity. Anyone who suffers from a digestive, eye-ear-throat, musculoskeletal pain, respiratory, or immune problem may be a candidate for this treatment. Though it has already been proven to improve one’s emotional regulation and overall mood immediately following treatment, considerable research and attention is being directed towards its potential role as an alternative, long-term therapy for depression and anxiety disorders. The array of people seeking to replace or supplement their psychotropic medications with a holistic aid may soon have conclusive recommendations in support of acupuncture. 

How Significant is the Pain Reduction?

The analgesic, or pain-reducing, abilities of acupuncture have been studied in considerable depth. A systematic review and meta-analysis were conducted by the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine on 13 randomized control trials assessing chronic pain reduction in response to acupuncture. The statistically significant results indicate that, on average, the effects of acupuncture for musculoskeletal pain (both acute and chronic) are immediate, remain strong for 7 hours following treatment, and then gradually diminish over the following 3 days. The levels of pain reduction following the believed neurohormonal activation were largely found to be dramatic. The endorphins released are a type of opioid peptide that act on the body in a very similar manner to primary analgesic agents, such as morphine, that are administered in clinical settings. Though, similar increases in one’s tolerance to opioids were suggested by fMRI results of patients’ brains following long-term treatment with acupuncture and morphine, alike. It is therefore important to approach long-term treatment of chronic pain using acupuncture with caution, as more research must be conducted to assess the potential risk of dependency being concurrent with prolonged treatment. 

In Conclusion

Acupuncture has remained an effective medical practice for over three millennia and has only become more effective as technology advances and more research is being done on the scope of ailments it may treat. Since its introduction to Western countries, the practice has been increasingly sought out as an alternative treatment for chronic pain. In the United States, 10% of people have tried acupuncture; in France, this percentage is doubled. Despite its portrayal in movies and TV, acupuncture’s versatility may be the underlying reason for its increased popularity. Acupuncture for musculoskeletal pain  has been proven effective and beneficial, as well as its various impacts on the digestive, respiratory, immune, and nervous/sensory systems, mental health, and general wellbeing!

Author: Camden Rowe

* All information subject to change. Images may contain models. Individual results are not guaranteed and may vary.