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Acupuncture for Chronic Pain: New Studies Support Acupuncture Treatment

by Josh Zimmer, AP 


Back in 2012, researchers closed an ambitious analysis of 18,000 chronic pain sufferers. What were they exploring?  These researches wanted to find out whether all 29 studies would show that acupuncture had successfully treated those 18,000 chronic pain sufferers. 

The answer was an emphatic “yes,” according to the Archives of Internal Medicine. On average, this ancient healing art generated 50% pain reductions. “Acupuncture is therefore a reasonable referral option,” the authors wrote. 

Positive results like these have excited hard-working acupuncturists who spend at least half of their time treating a wide range of pain issues, and are always eager to spread the word about their natural modality. Acupuncture treats pain by breaking up blockages in nerves, muscles and body fluids that lead to discomfort and malfunction. The mantra “Stagnation Equals Pain” is one of the first articles of faith taught in Chinese Medicine schools, along with the belief that thoughts and emotions also generate illness. Taking the edge off––or even eliminating––neck, shoulder, knee, back pain and more is the cornerstone of most practices.  

Five years later, the study remains instructive, as Americans deal with a daunting scale of chronic pain which afflicts an estimated 100-million people. This problem has helped spawn an opioid (pain killer) abuse crisis that kills 91 Americans every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control. As often happens with pharmaceuticals, highly addictive opioids have been overprescribed for years, health experts point out 

Unfortunately, there’s not much to show for this. “Since 1999, the amount of prescription opioids sold in the U.S. nearly quadrupled, yet there has not been an overall change in the amount of pain that Americans report,” the CDC says. “Deaths from prescription opioids—drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone—have more than quadrupled since 1999.” 

But there’s a large mountain to climb. Hundreds of thousands of people every year turn to so-called alternative health for relief. Yet the desire to cure pain with a pill––backed by a lucrative network of insurance, pharmaceutical companies and overprescribing doctors––still rules the day. Ironically though, the pain-relieving modality often met with unnecessary fear––namely, acupuncture––has been shown to releasing natural opioids (endorphins) within the body. 

Natural health practitioners need to keep making a case for the non-addictive, long-term benefits of natural modalities like acupuncture, hoping that it catches fire with the general public and the entities which are supposed to serve them. Here are the basic dynamics at play with Acupuncture and chronic pain:  

Needle stimulation activates the flow of Qi––energy––and blood, the basis of all physiology. Any pain area lacks balanced Qi and blood vitality. Imagining the body as an energy system with interconnected channels, acupuncture points act like switches on that electrical grid, sending healing energy to local sites, like an injured knee or shoulder, or other parts of the body, like the head. That’s why points on the feet and hands can treat a painful neck or shoulder. When treating pain, we often combine local and distal points. 

The 2012 meta-analysis that highlighted acupuncture’s effectiveness looked at neck and back pain, osteoarthritis, chronic headache and shoulder pain. Acupuncture generates tangible pain-relieving chemical releases in the body. Not only does it stimulate the flow of opioids, at least one 2010 study appearing in the Journal of Pain showed that acupuncture triggers the local release of adenosine, helping to desensitize pain receptors. 

Ongoing pain is associated with chronic inflammation. Recognizing inflammation as a major source of chronic pain is a growing centerpiece of modern medicine. That includes the understanding that less-than-optimal digestive systems activate painful inflammatory responses that can affect the entire body. Traditional Chinese Medicine has always connected diet and inflammation, using the word “dampness to describe the internal swelling behind a lot of joint pain like rheumatoid arthritis or systemic pain, as with fibromyalgia. 

In addition, the mind has a role as well. Chinese Medicine places the mind and emotions on equal footing with the physical body. Thoughts and feelings such as sadness, anger and depression are considered disease factors if left unresolved. So, while modern studies disagree on whether depression actually causes chronic pain, depression is a common co-factor, and anxiety is another one. Stress, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is also strongly associated with chronic pain.  

Acupuncture is just one commonly used alternative modality. Ancient physicians used numerous techniques that help relieve chronic pain. For example, thanks to the swimmers at the last Summer Olympics, the healing effects of cupping were introduced to the broader public. The suction it creates breaks up adhesions and draws blood to damaged muscle and joints. Guasha, a gentle scraping modality using a round-edged stone, also improves circulation while desensitizing painful peripheral nerves.  

In modern times, acupuncturists have also been using electrical stimulation of inserted acupuncture needles to magnify the pain-relieving process. Chinese herbal formulas, taken internally or topically, also help heal chronic pain including the underlying conditions that create it. Finally, acupuncture and its related modalities are both safe and non-addictive. So, tell that to Big Pharma. 


Dr. Josh Zimmer, AP, DOM, is a Florida-licensed acupuncturist, providing a wide range of holistic services to promote natural healing at Four Pillars, a wellness spa in Lakewood Ranch. His sessions often combine acupuncture with cupping, warming moxibustion, electro-stimulation, Tuina acupressure massage, herbal prescriptions and gentle Gua Sha. He is also nationally-certified in performing B-12 and homeopathic injections for low-energy, pain and inflammation conditions. For more information, call 941-373-3955 or visit 



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