Pain, whether acute or chronic, is one of the most common issues treated with acupuncture. In fact, many Americans’ first exposure to the practice of acupuncture was of its use to treat pain. In 1971, a New York Times journalist covering Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China had to have an emergency appendectomy. He received acupuncture treatment for postoperative pain, and wrote an article for the Times detailing his experiences.
Since that time, there has been a great deal of debate in the medical community over how effective acupuncture really is at treating pain. In 2012, an article published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine analyzed the results of 29 previous studies involving nearly 18,000 participants. The results indicated that acupuncture is effective in treating chronic pain, both on its own and compared to a placebo (in this case, “sham acupuncture”, in which needles are placed randomly rather than according to the system of meridians). While the study is not the final word on the matter, there is general consensus within the medical community that pain is one of the areas in which acupuncture is most effective.
Theories for acupuncture’s ability to treat pain vary widely. According to tradition, pain, especially chronic pain, is a symptom of a deeper imbalance in the body’s energy. By restoring balance, the root cause of the pain is treated, often preventing more serious issues from arising. This is very close to recent medical studies suggesting that acupuncture increases nitric oxide levels in the blood, improving circulation and reducing inflammation in joints.
Another commonly cited explanation is the “gate theory” of pain. This idea proposes that pain in the body is controlled by two separate types of nerves. Some of these nerves transmit pain signals to the brain, while others inhibit these same sensations. It may be that acupuncture stimulates these “pain suppression” nerves, leading to both short-term and long-term pain relief.
Regardless of the explanation for its mechanism of action, acupuncture’s non-invasive practice and low risk for side effects have made it one of the most popular non-pharmaceutical treatments for chronic and acute pain.