Acupuncture for Effective Pain Relief

Management and treatment of pain is one of the most important aspects of effective acupuncture. When David started Red Earth, he was doing some work in Google to understand what, related to Chinese Medicine, people are searching for. At the time, he plugged every possible search-term he could think of – probably a list of 30 or so criteria. The result: One term was exponentially and universally searched on way more than any other term, and it was pain. Everyone wanted to know how to get out of pain.

An estimated 76.5 million Americans experience pain, one-third of whom describe their pain as “severe” and "disabling."  Acupuncture has long been recognized as an enormously effective, natural treatment for pain, which makes it an attractive alternative to opiate-based drug prescriptions, and in certain circumstances is even an alternative to conventional surgery, with no risk of addiction and other major adverse side effects.

An estimated 2 million people in the U.S. suffer from substance abuse related to prescription opioid pain relievers. In the US, this addiction to opioids has resulted in hundreds of thousands of people overdosing on prescription medication.1  Deaths from prescription opioids quadrupled since 1999, resulting in 78 American deaths due to opioid overdose a day.2   In a recent analysis published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers concluded that acupuncture has a definite effect in reducing chronic pain, such as back pain and headaches – more so than standard pain treatment. This year, the CDC has revised its guidelines for prescribing opioid pain relief, seeking to improve patient safety and address opioid misuse by encouraging providers to recommend non-pharmacologic therapies like acupuncture for pain.3   The integration of acupuncture into treatment plans of those suffering from chronic or acute pain can significantly diminish the need for addictive medications, and ultimately promote a better quality of life.

Acupuncture for pain relief is so effective that the US military has explored the use of acupuncture in the battlefield, and several hospitals are incorporating it into their Emergency Departments. Research shows that acupuncture is as effective or sometimes more effective than conventional care for the most common chronic pain conditions. And acupuncture has a far better safety record than any of the conventional treatments for pain without the common side effects like dizziness, nausea, constipation, anxiety and chemical dependence that are associated with pain medications.

Repairing the Healing Mechanism:

Our goal at the clinic is to “Restore the Body’s Ability Heal”. The human body is a living system, just like any other living system. One thing that we observe about most people who come into the clinic in pain is that they want to have their body “fixed” and don't understand the self-repairing, self-healing aspect to their body. In reality the self-repairing mechanism is simply disabled, or impaired and that is the underlying cause of pain.

An important part of our job as a traditionally trained Acupuncturist, is to identify where the repair mechanism failed and how to correct this mechanism through the treatment process. When the repair mechanism begins to work, pain is reduced.

How it works

Acupuncture points are places where nerves, muscles and connective tissue can be stimulated. This stimulation increases blood flow while at the same time triggering the release of endorphins, our body's natural painkillers, and by affecting the part of the brain that governs serotonin, a brain chemical involved with mood. Because emotions are intimately connected to the sensory centers of the brain, what we feel emotionally may determine, in part, what we experience physically in our bodies.

The inflammatory response that is triggered to heal the acute injury may do it's job, but then if inflammation continues this is the body sending a signal that the healing process is incomplete, which we experience as chronic pain. Early treatment of acute pain is paramount in preventing this transition into chronic, long term pain. Acupuncture combined with moxa and herbal preparations can quickly address the trauma to the body and move out the inflammation associated with acute injury. As we've already mentioned above, treatment of chronic pain with Chinese Medicine is very effective, though may take a longer course of treatment.

Mind Body Connection

One reason that traditional acupuncture methods work so well is because the medical system upon which it is based understands that all illness that affects the body also affects the mind; anything affecting the mind will eventually affect the body. The axiom is stated in the old texts thus: “The mind and the body are not two.” As we have treated pain over the years, we have noticed this connection, and as people get treated, their mental clarity and peace of mind improves as the pain is reduced and eliminated and visa versa.

There is no doubt that pain can trigger negative emotions. When you are pain, and can't accomplish the things you want to accomplish, frustration, depression and resentment can take over. People who experience chronic pain are more likely to have mood disorders and anxiety. Depression has also recently been shown to be linked with inflammation.4

Ancient chinese medicine texts say that “all pain is related to the heart” because pain is perceived by the person feeling it. We can see inflammation, but we can't see pain. The Heart is considered the “seat of the emotions”, so we always address the heart when we are treating someone with pain. Areas of the brain that process physical pain are shared with our emotion centers, making a multi-pronged approach to pain treatment essential. Because acupuncture affects both the the pain and the emotions, it is far superior to opioids and other pain medications.

Temporary verses lasting pain management

Most of the pain management protocols only mask or suppress the body’s ability to perceive pain. This generally does two things, it makes people feel less well emotionally and it delays or suppresses the natural healing processes of the body, creating the need for stronger and stronger interventions over time.

Through a course of acupuncture treatments the body’s healing mechanisms are reactivated, leading to the need for less treatment, whether it be pharmaceuticals, or even acupuncture.

We had a patient who came to the clinic, in terrible pain from Trigeminal Neuralgia. She had has multiple tests and diagnostics run costing several thousands of dollars, including an MRI, none of which were conclusive. After three treatments, she was pain-free. The comment she made after the second treatment, was how cost effective this was relative to even the diagnostics she had undergone. We followed up with the patient at six months and 12 month and no relapse had occurred.

Another patient had tried multiple methods for back pain radiating down his leg causing a cold sensation and numbness. When it was suggested he get an MRI, he came for Acupuncture first. After one treatment he was experiencing am 80% reduction in pain. We will follow up and treat until the pain is gone and the functionality has returned.

In Chinese Medicine the mechanisms that reduce pain are the same mechanisms that facilitate the repair of the body. A pain response is considered something to be listened to and honored as it is the body asking for help. Contrast this to most modern methods which attempt to short-circuit, suppress or turn off the pain response.

For instance, we recently successfully finished treating a small business owner, who chose to use acupuncture and herbs to rehabilitate a torn rotator cuff. He decided against surgery because he did think he could take the time off work to recover from surgery. Using acupuncture and herbs the patient was able to remain on the job as he underwent treatment. He did an excellent job, listening to his body’s signals and would do range of motion and training exercises to the point of “challenging” the injury, but was careful not to exercise to the point of re-injury of the area. As the patient’s pain reduced the repair process was facilitated. While this is not a choice for every patient, it worked well for him.


  • Come in for treatment when you have an acute injury so it doesn't transition into a chronic condition.
  • If you already have chronic pain, address it sooner rather than later so that the pain related hormones and other body systems can be rebalanced restoring your body's natural ability to heal.
  • Look at diet and lifestyle to reduce inflammation in the body (see some suggestions below).
  • Recognize how your emotions play a role so that you can work to reduce the effect the emotions have on your pain and the effects the pain has on your emotions.


1 According to the National Institutes of Health.

2 The Centers for Disease Control (CDC)

3 CDC guidelines

4 BMC Medicine: Berk, et all. "So depression is an inflammatory disease, but where does the inflammation come from?"

Posted in Acupuncture