At the 28th annual meeting of the Academy of Integrative Pain Management last month, the role and efficacy of acupuncture in pain management was presented and discussed. Numerous studies show that there is solid evidence for acupuncture being effective for headaches, osteoarthritis and musculoskeletal conditions. Treating pain without using medications is becoming more important nowadays.
Chronic pain is and will continue to be a growing problem in this country, as our elderly population continues to increase. I’m sure we all know someone who complains of some kind of chronic pain, like having bad knees or a bad back. Unfortunately, the common treatment for chronic pain is NSAIDs and/or opioid medications. Chronic pain isn’t something that goes away, so people are forced to use NSAIDs and opioids long-term. Long-term NSAID use is associated with high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, and liver and kidney damage, and long-term opioid use is associated with addiction and death.
So treatment options for chronic pain that are safe and effective are much needed. Acupuncture is a great option. Studies have shown that it is more effective than sham acupuncture (where needles are inserted at non-acupuncture points or don’t even go through the skin) and standard care for neck pain, low back pain, knee osteoarthritis, headaches and migraines.
So how does acupuncture work? I was taught that it can increase production of endorphins, which are our natural pain killers. In addition, more recent studies show that it can help by modulating pain perception in the brain. This makes acupuncture highly effective for chronic pain, which is due to dysregulated pain pathways, as opposed to acute pain, which has more to do with inflammation and tissue damage.
Brain scans (fMRI) of people with moderate to severe osteoarthritis of the knee who had six acupuncture treatments over a one-month period showed improved connectivity between two brain areas thought to be involved in pain processing. The acupuncture group had significant improvements in pain, function in sports, and quality of life as measured on the Knee Injury and Osteoarthritis Outcome Score (KOOS) compared to the sham acupuncture group, and these changes correlated with the improved brain connectivity seen on the fMRI scans.
I recommend giving acupuncture a try for 4 to 5 treatments to see if it will work for you and your pain. And if you’ve tried if before and it didn’t help – I’ve had patients with knee pain that tried acupuncture, and it didn’t help with knee pain, but helped with a separate shoulder issue. So just because acupuncture didn’t help for one kind of pain for you doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it for a different pain.
Also, evidence suggests that acupuncture works by modulating the brain and nerve signals. So if someone has a highly damaged nervous system, it may not be as effective, though still worth trying as it’s non-invasive with minimal side effects.
You can see from the picture above that acupuncture needles are tiny -- nothing like the ones that are used for vaccines or blood draws! They are the diameter of a hair strand and very flexible. You may feel a quick sensation as the needle goes through the skin, but most of my patients don't feel anything and are surprised when I tell them the needle is in! If you're ready to give acupuncture a try, or if you've had it before and would like to start treatments again, you can schedule an appointment with me.