Acupuncture for Pain: Complementary Medicine That Works

by Janet Jay
header with stick figures at bottom performing cupping, massage and acupuncture, text reads "complementary medicine that works: Acupuncture for pain,"

This ancient complementary therapy may help chronic neck pain, lower back pain, joint pain, nerve pain, mental health, invisible illnesses and so much more

Acupuncture for pain is one of the oldest forms of complementary medicine on earth. Read on for more about the history of acupuncture (and acupuncture for pain, specifically). I’ll dive into what it is, what we understand about how it works, and if it may help you.

Acupuncture: As Old-School As It Gets

You’ve probably heard of acupuncture before: it has been around for literally thousands of years. Throughout many Eastern medical traditions runs a belief that the body has an energy running through it, much like blood circulation. In Chinese acupuncture this energy is called chi/qi; in Indian ayurvedic medicine, it’s called prana. But they all share the belief that blocking the flow of this energy is harmful to your health. Acupuncture focuses on stimulating points throughout the body to remove blockages and restore a healthy flow of this energy. Related treatments like acupressure, cupping, electroacupuncture, and magnetic or laser treatments have the same aim.

I found a site with a ton of incredible old diagrams and drawings about acupuncture through history, from Japan, China, Korea… here are just a few I thought looked cool.

Does acupuncture for pain really work? Science says… probably?

The World Health Organization recognizes the effectiveness of acupuncture for more than 60 conditions.   A number of studies suggest that acupuncture may help reduce inflammation, reduce the frequency of tension and migraine headaches, and ease pain, including that caused by chronic conditions like like low-back pain, neck pain, and osteoarthritis/knee pain. Some data even suggests it can help treat mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

Woman in white coat performs acupuncture on a man with tatoos lying face down on a massage table, with flowers and vases in the background
Photo by RODNAE Productions

But there’s no consensus and still a great deal of debate over its efficacy. especially acupuncture for pain. One reason is that it‘s difficult to design a study that takes into account all the variables surrounding acupuncture.

There’s currently no test or scan that can illustrate or confirm acupuncture points and channels. However, in recent years functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) scans have shown how manipulating these pressure points can affect reactions in different areas of the brain.

The cover of INvisible Project magazine, "real people, real photos, real hope," "Acute-to-chronic pain" with a woman looking down and holding her wrist, which has a red circle around it to represent pain
Check it out! You can even order issues for free.

A Pain Physician Weighs In

I was halfway done with this post when I was asked to write an article about complementary therapies for the US Pain Foundation‘s INvisible Project magazine. I was lucky enough to get to talk with Dr. Anjana Kundu, MD, anesthesiologist-in-chief at University of Rochester’s Golisano Children’s Hospital and a board-certified pediatric anesthesiologist, pediatric pain, and palliative care physician with additional training and board certification in acupuncture and integrative medicine.

In the article she explained, “It’s a good additional modality because it has effects on multiple different levels, meaning it can improve mood, reduce pain, and help with sleep and stress.”

Interested in other complementary therapies that actually work? Check out this piece on biofeedback, updated with new info about how it treats chronic migraine!

How does acupuncture help pain? Science says… we’re not sure.

In the magazine piece, Dr. Kundu explained that acupuncture needles affect “not only just the acupressure points; they also affect the nerves that carry pain signals to the brain. This unlocks pain pathways by decreasing the intensity of pain, triggering internal healing and pain-fighting substances—our body’s natural opioids.”

One idea is that acupuncture may be working via something called “gate control theory.”  Another hypothesis is that it releases endorphins which then quell pain. But nobody really knows. This Atlantic Monthly article goes into more detail about some of the different theories surrounding acupuncture.

A man lies on his side with no shirt. On his back are a variety of acupuncture needles, some hooked to wires
Electro-acupuncture! (Read more about this treatment variant below.) Image by acupunturacomunitaria from Pixabay

My experience with acupuncture

Especially when I was first trying to get my pain under control, I got a lot of benefit from acupuncture. (What helped most was electro-acupuncture, where they run a low current through the needles). I had a few months where I came out of those sessions feeling calm and in less pain. Unfortunately, for me the benefits soon plateaued. (In talking to other chronic pain patients, this seems to be a not uncommon reaction.)

I had a few months where I came out of those sessions feeling calm and in less pain. Unfortunately, for me the benefits soon plateaued.

The nature of chronic illness means that acupuncture for pain of this kind may take more time to address the long-term effects on the body. When the method is used to treat acute issues, effects may be seen more quickly. But going in once and saying “it didn’t help” is not the way to approach acupuncture.

My back post-cupping
Me after my fight with the Cephalopod of Pain

Acupuncture for pain: perhaps more of a bridge to get you through a bad spot, rather than an ongoing treatment or a cure

A couple of years ago when I was really hurting I tried acupuncture again. They also did cupping, which uses negative pressure to increase circulation to problem spots. As a fun extra, you walk out looking like you fought an octopus! 

Yet again, it helped for a bit but eventually stopped making much difference. (Then again, short-term relief ain’t necessarily something to sneeze at if you’re caught in the middle of a miserable flareup!)

Paying For It & Finding A Good Practitioner

Acupuncture is sometimes but definitely not always covered by insurance. That means checking your coverage should be the first thing on the agenda. (The NIH page “Paying for Complimentary and Integrated Health Approaches” has a treasure trove of good info to help you determine and establish coverage. )

 Unfortunately, a huge survey done by the nonprofit I work for found that massage therapists and acupuncturists were among the top three providers those surveyed would like to see more of but cannot because of barriers like cost.

But even if it’s not covered, there are other options out there, like sliding scale clinics. The clinic I went to most recently, South Austin Community Acupuncture, has a “pick what you pay” setup. (Also, dinos.)

south austin community acupuncture front window with sandwich board sign with name and various plants, succulents and toy dinos on the windowsill
From their instagram, with the caption “and a good time was had by all”

Will you benefit from acupuncture for pain?

There’s really no way to know until you give it a go: acupuncture is just one more complementary treatment for those of us with chronic pain or invisible illnesses to try. It certainly helps some people–and has for literally millennia!–and there’s certainly some science behind why, though no hard-and-fast proof. Each person with chronic pain, invisible illnesses or other kinds of disability has different factors going into the decision of whether it’s worth it to try this therapy. Even if it only helped short-term, I’m glad I did. But for me it was a short-term solution.

two stick figures are demonstrating acupuncture and cupping, text reads "complementary medicine that works: acupuncture for pain,"

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