The people who come to see me for pain usually do so because nothing else has worked for them. They have been to doctors, taken tests and tried a range of medications but still have gotten no relief. Most have never had acupuncture before—they just heard that it can help with pain and, desperate for some relief and, often, referred to me by their doctors, decide to give it a try.
I know how they feel. That is exactly what I did about fifteen years ago. When no doctor or therapy I tried brought relief for my chronic neck pain, a friend suggested I visit her acupuncturist. I had nothing to lose.
I knew nothing about acupuncture for pain then, but I went. After about four sessions, I was pain-free for the first time in years. It seemed like magic: merely inserting a few tiny needles helped me after all those years of pain. I was so impressed that I quit my job and went back to school to become an acupuncturist.
Acupuncture has been practiced for 3,000 years and is part of the overarching umbrella of Chinese medicine that includes herbal medicine, tuina (a type of massage and body manipulation) and cupping. During an acupuncture session, very small needles—much smaller than anything you could find in a doctor’s office—are inserted into acupuncture points along meridians in the body. Meridians are channels along which energy (qi) flows. These needles trigger the body to heal—something the human body is designed to do when things go wrong. The needle gives the body the signal to do so.
We live in a world of the binary: male/female, day/night, hot/cold, internal/external, up/down, etc. Chinese medicine is based on keeping the body in balance with itself and with nature. The symbol of yin and yang, the eternally swimming black-and-white fish, is representative of this balance. Part of Chinese medicine’s healing philosophy is that life is in constant flux between polarities.
Our bodies are like this as well: sometimes too hot, sometimes too cold, sometimes active, sometimes at rest. The goal in living, according to Chinese medicine and according to the Western medical understanding of homeostatic processes, is to keep the body in balance—to not let it stay in an extreme state (be that stress or rest, overfed or underfed, hot or cold).
Together with each patient, I look at the balances in his or her life. This could be the patient’s daily activities, or it could be the balances between systems of the body. A complaint of lower back pain or migraine, or any malady, is treated differently from patient to patient because what is out of balance varies from person to person. Lower back pain caused by a car crash is different from lower back pain caused by sitting in a chair too long. A headache caused by consuming too much alcohol is different from a headache caused by sinus problems. Therefore, there is no single acupuncture point that always cures any condition.
In Chinese medicine, pain is like a warning light in a car. It signifies that something is wrong, but it tells the practitioner nothing in itself about the cause. So often, the Western medical approach to such a warning light is to snip the wire, sometimes literally. In Chinese medicine, rather than disabling the wire and causing the light to go out, an acupuncturist attempts to identify the root of the problem causing the pain—the flashing warning light—and address the cause. In doing so, the warning light of pain may go away or diminish. These root causes vary from person to person; a migraine could be alleviated by eliminating an allergen or making a lifestyle change.
The holistic approach of acupuncture and Chinese medicine looks at the whole person: mind, body and spirit. These things cannot be separated. Western medicine typically looks only at the physical, omitting large and important parts of the human experience from which suffering can arise.
Exploring the Roots of Pain
For example, a woman in her late 30s recently came to me because of severe, chronic fibromyalgia that was not responding to treatment. She experienced a chronically stiff and painful neck, right foot and lower back pain, as well as anxiety and stress.
She visited doctor after doctor and received medication, but she found no lasting relief. When I asked her when the issues arose, she told me everything began four years ago, when she started her current job, which she found incredibly stressful. She mentioned that she was sleep deprived, harassed by coworkers and ignored by her boss.
If I had dismissed her story and simply inserted needles, her treatment may not have been as successful. Upon realizing her pain had begun with her job, she began to identify the connection between her physical, mental and spiritual pain. A shift began in her consciousness. Yes, I did insert needles to help with the pain and anxiety, but the root cause of the pain had been discovered. After six weeks of treatment, she is pain-free, with less anxiety.
How Acupuncture Heals
There is nothing magical about an acupuncture needle. It has no power in and of itself to heal. What it does is trigger the body to heal itself. But how does it do this? There are hundreds of studies supporting the efficacy of acupuncture, and many theories have been proposed: that it helps to stimulate the body’s natural painkillers (endorphins), that pain messages from the peripheral nerves are somehow blocked by a gate before they reach the spinal cord and brain (the gate-control theory), and that the acupuncture lines upon which the acupuncture points fall (the meridians) seem to correspond with and affect connective tissue, which somehow seems to trigger a healing response.
Science proves that acupuncture can be effective in managing pain, but it may require years to understand the exact mechanism. (Just consider: it took 100 years to understand how aspirin works in the body.) Since acupuncture is relatively new to the Western world, it has only been put to scientific testing relatively recently. Meanwhile, thousands of people use it every day and find relief.
How to Find an Acupuncturist
So, how does someone find a good acupuncturist? It depends on where you live. Each state has its own licensing requirements, ranging from strict requirements to none at all. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) offers four tests that aspiring acupuncturists must take in some states: foundations of Oriental medicine, acupuncture point location, biomedicine and Chinese herbology.
Those who pass these tests are called “diplomates” and will often advertise themselves as such. Some states require practitioners to pass all four exams; others require that the practitioner pass three, two, or even none. California has its own certification tests that are particular to itself. Most states require a master’s level of training with a set number of clinical hours. In Maryland, for instance, the NCCAOM tests are not required, but acupuncturists are required to have attended a program of 1,800 hours of training with 300 clinical hours. If your state has an acupuncture society, you may find links on that page to acupuncturists in your area. If you are in one of the states that require NCCAOM certification, you can go to the NCCAOM website and find referrals in your state.
People with chronic pain may consider acupuncture for pain and Chinese medicine as one of many effective pain-management techniques. It is a powerful agent of change, is relatively painless and has few side effects. It’s worth exploring.