Acupuncture and the Treatment of Pain

AcupunctureAn ancient Chinese proverb says: “When there is pain there is no free flow of Qi. When there is free flow of Qi there is no pain.”

Pain is essentially a blockage in the flow of energy within the body. By stimulating acupuncture points, blockages can be opened to restore the proper flow of Qi and relieve pain.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) focuses on the internal energy of the body – the Qi (pronounced chee). The Qi circulates throughout the body on specific pathways called meridians. What modern medicine would refer to as illness, TCM would refer to as an imbalance or disharmony of the Qi. A TCM practitioner would diagnose and treat accordingly to correct the Qi flow and return the body to balance. In Chinese medicine, good health is a state of harmony between the mind, body and spirit.

An acupuncturist inserts needles into the appropriate points to stimulate energy flow into or out of an effected area/organ to balance excess and deficiency patterns. The desired result is to balance the energy and blood flow of the body and restore harmony. For cases of fatigue or constitutional weakness accompanied by pain, the practitioner will select points in his treatment protocol to boost the vital energy of the body along with points to alleviate pain. For straightforward cases involving pain, the practitioner will select points to disperse stagnant qi and stimulate correct circulation in the effected area.

Pain, simply stated, is caused by a lack of proper circulation. External factors such as wind, cold, dampness and heat can cause the flow of energy and blood to be obstructed. The result of this obstruction can be pain, numbness, a feeling of heaviness, stiffness and swelling of the joints and muscles. In severe cases, motor impairment in the limbs will occur. Acupuncture both stimulates circulation and corrects improper circulation in the affected area. Once proper circulation of energy and blood is restored, the pain will recede.

During the diagnostic assessment, the TCM practitioner will look for “patterns” exhibited by the patient. The specific type of pain the patient suffers from, combined with other signs and symptoms, will explain a lot about their constitution and specific ailment. 


– Achy, dull, distensive pain – that is aggravated by damp weather (dampness). Pain due to dampness is generally characterized by a feeling of heaviness and sluggishness. The practitioner will choose a treatment protocol to drain dampness and alleviate pain.

– Pain that is worse with heat – red, raised, painful, hot (“heat” or “fire, damp heat”). People who suffer from pain caused by heat generally describe the pain as burning. Rigidity of the affected area is a common symptom with increased pain upon motion of the affected area. Pain due to heat is usually accompanied by fever, thirst and restlessness.

– Wandering Pain (“wind”). Pain is in no fixed location and generally “wanders” around the body. The location of the pain tends to move and has an ascending nature. Wind type pain commonly affects the upper body and limbs (shoulder, elbow and wrist) and is often described as a pulling pain and/or numbness.

– Constricting, sharp, colicky pain – that is relieved by the application of heat (“cold”). Often accompanied by cold sensation in the joints. A practitioner will often stimulate acupuncture points with heat (warmth is applied with a clinical heat lamp or by burning the Chinese herb, called moxibustion, and holding it over the acupuncture point) to alleviate pain and dispel cold.

– Sharp stabbing, fixed pain (“blood stasis”) – Indicates very poor circulation of the energy and blood. The practitioner will treat to invigorate the circulation of blood.

– Pain that is reduced with the application of pressure – or pain that is worse after physical exertion (“Qi Deficiency”). The treatment will focus on boosting the vital energy of the body. The Qi and Blood need to be nourished in order to fill the meridians and properly circulate throughout the body.


All these signs lead the practitioner towards the underlying cause of the pain and he/she will direct the treatment to specifically address the issues causing the pain or illness. Sometimes the energy need simply be moved to disperse the stagnation. Other times the patient’s Qi (energy) will need to be boosted to help move the qi as well. The treatment protocol will be designed based on the nature of the patient’s condition. How chronic or long standing the condition is, or if is it a relatively acute episode, will determine the approach of the treatment.

The main object in treatment of pain is to break the pain cycle. For someone suffering from chronic pain, it is possible they experience continuous pain day and night. It is important to break this cycle.

At first the pain may only disappear for a matter of minutes or a few hours before it returns. Subsequent treatments will enable the cycle to be broken for longer and longer periods of time until the patient is pain-free.

I prefer to treat until the patient is pain free then add one more treatment to ensure a longer lasting effect. Patients experience fewer “flare-ups” of the injury if they see the treatment plan through to the finish rather than discontinue the treatment too early.

In the cases of patients suffering from chronic, long standing conditions, it can take up to 3 to 6 months of treatment to see successful results. In some cases continuous “tune-up” treatments will be required depending on the person’s specific condition or occupation. Acute sprains or injuries may require 1 to 10 treatments depending upon the severity and nature of the accident/injury.


Acupuncture for the treatment of pain works well in conjunction with treatment from other modalities such as: chiropractic, physiotherapy and massage therapy. There is no need to discontinue other therapies while receiving treatment with acupuncture. Combining treatment with other modalities has been known to speed up recovery time and increase positive results.

TCM is growing in acceptance in Western societies because it works! Perhaps the strongest feature of TCM is its ability to treat chronic conditions for which conventional medicine has no answers nor effective long term treatments.

Acupuncture has proven effective in the successful treatment of the following types of pain:

  • Arthritis
  • Traumatic Injury
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
  • Tension (stress)
  • Tennis elbow
  • Knee injury
  • Frozen shoulder
  • Repeated stress syndrome (computer work, etc.)
  • Back pain, Sciatica
  • Sports Injury
  • Muscle, joint pain
  • Headaches
  • Painful Menstruation
  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
  • And many more…

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