April 2007

Acupuncture: Targeted and Effective Pain Relief

By Elliot Wagner, O.M.D., L.Ac., Doctor of Oriental Medicine

Why is acupuncture so remarkable when it comes to treating pain? What is it about this apparently simple procedure that has such far-reaching affects on pain and the underlying problems that cause pain? The answer is that no other procedure can target pain — and bring about beneficial physiological change — with the accuracy of acupuncture.

Something inspired the ancient Chinese doctors who created acupuncture. I don't know what it was, unless it was the notion that the best ideas for solving problems within nature (including the human body) come from deeply exploring nature herself. They had a faith that the structure — the anatomy — as well as the function — the physiology — of the boy would reveal the answers to the restoration of health.

Contrary to popular belief — held by many today even in China — the historical Chinese did thousands of human dissections. There are records of as far back as 200 BC of dissection studies which are accurate enough to be consistent with those of the 21st century. What the ancient physicians found in these studies of the body was network of :vessels: (the Chinese word is jingluo) connecting the skin and muscles with the internal organs, the internal organs with each other, the internal organs with the sense organs, and all of it with the "sea of nervous tissue" in the spinal cord and brain.

Using those connections—what we know as the circulatory system, and central peripheral nervous systems—the Chinese devised an extraordinary strategy for accessing the jingluo network through "acunodes," places of intersection where the vessels are especially accessible through the skin, and by which means the entire system is available for influence. This system was in place more than 2500 years ago. The additional experience of a hundred generations of acupuncturists have only made it better.

Acupuncture is not just a "modality" as many medical practitioners and others believe. No, it is a physiologically based medical system by which a desired change can be made — whether that change is pain relief, improved fertility, a more beautiful and vibrant face, recovery from illness or after surgery or childbirth, or improvement in immune function.

And, the amazing thing is that the developers of this "miracle medicine" discovered not only that it worked, but how to direct healing to that part of the body that required it.

Now, let us talk about pain relief in particular. A famous Chinese saying about this is, "bu tong ze tong, tong ze bu tong," which means, lack of free flow causes pain, while bringing about free flow removes pain. This is a basic tenet of Chinese medicine. It simply means that Chinese physicians recognize that in ALL cases of pain there is a component of blockage, or "stagnation." Whenever there is sufficient blockage or stagnation of the free movement of circulation of blood, lymph, interstitial fluid, digestion, elimination, nervous conduction, or joint and muscle interplay, there will be, according to this tenet, pain.

The implication for treatment is that we look to find where the blockage is, and proceed to treat that portion of the body. In other words, we target the blockage, not simply the sensation of pain. If the blockage is not just local but systemic, throughout the body, such as in many types of chronic illness or immune disease: arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, for example, then, in addition to local treatment, the whole body must be included and cared for.

Also, sometimes we find particularly clear indications of blockage or stagnation: If we find swelling in a painful joint, a low back with bluish veins, stomach pain after eating, a headache with fixed pain, painful menstruation that is purplish or clotted, we know from these and other signs that the pain is due primarily to blockage or stagnation, and clearing the blockage will relieve the pain.

This idea also has implications for preventative care: Many times an acupuncturist will see signs of blockage before these is significant pain, and can offer treatment and lifestyle changes which will help to prevent the pain that may come from stagnation that is likely to bring about later problems.