The United States is not alone in its experience with what is frequently called “The Opioid Crisis.” This epidemic has grown out of both addiction to and abuse of pain medication, often prescribed initially to treat pain that meets expected, post- surgical and condition- specific standards. Sadly, what can and too often follows, is not only a dependence on these medications, but comorbidities including liver disease, brain damage, depression, and ultimately death. The efficacy of pain medications, injections, and any number of therapies are not to be disregarded. Rather, we would all do well to consider acupuncture as a viable, rather than alternative, off the beaten path, analgesic that compliments allopathic treatment.
Acupuncture in the treatment of Physical and Emotional Pain
It may seem almost counterintuitive to place needles in one’s body to treat pain. When we delve beyond the surface however, what becomes clear is what those needles are actually doing. Through their placement in points that correspond to pain and symptomatic organ systems, it is believed that acupuncture needles stimulate the production of endorphins, hormones that are integrally related to mood and act as painkillers that are naturally occuring. When these endorphins are released, they affect serotonin levels within the brain and create the perfect storm for a happier, calmer mind.
Acupuncture is a physical treatment by definition, but expands far beyond that realm. Grief, a form of pain brought on by the loss of a loved one for example, can be treated by the placement of needles within points along the arms that correspond to the lungs. This in turn encourages a release of endorphins and as a result, can induce crying which requires the lungs to open up, and bring oxygen to the brain. Relief, over time, travels through neural pathways, allowing for the rebalancing of one’s chi, or energy, and return to physical and emotional homeostasis.
In addition to grief, acupuncture is widely used in the treatment of other conditions. This modality has shown promising benefits in the treatment of alcohol addiction and abuse, by working with the brain centers that encourage dependence on this substance. According to the National Institutes of Health, acupuncture has demonstrated therapeutic efficacy in the treatment of dental pain, menstrual cramps, gastrointestinal disorders, headaches, fibromyalgia, arthritis, and the effects of a stroke.
Risks and Benefits of Acupuncture
As with anything in life, there is a cost benefit analysis that must take place. While acupuncture is by far a less expensive treatment option than an ongoing prescription for pain medication or surgery and post- op care, it is crucial to understand that acupuncture does not fix what ails you in one session. A course of treatment is based on your presenting symptoms and how intensely they are affecting your quality of life. You may need to visit your acupuncturist anywhere from twice a week for two to three weeks, bi-monthly, semi annually, or any combination thereof.
While cost is a consideration, individuals suffering from bleeding disorders, as well as those who are clinically afraid of needles, may need to strongly consider alternatives to acupuncture. Cardiac patients, with or without a pacemaker, must consider how the electrical stimulation of acupuncture may affect their heart rhythm. Lastly, pregnant women are not good candidates for acupuncture as they may go into preterm or early labor as a result of the needles’ effects. Mercifully, there are lots of treatment options for pain sufferers, no matter the cause of their pain. That said, acupuncture, for those who can experience it, can bring relief in profound, life altering ways.
Moving Forward with Acupuncture