How We Treat Pain

How Acupuncture Treats Pain

Woman in back pain

Treating pain is what acupuncture is known for. People ask me how it works. Do the needles stimulate nerves? What is going on?

Well, the short answer is that we don’t exactly know how acupuncture works. And the other interesting thing is that there are several different styles of acupuncture, so different acupuncturists will choose completely different points to treat the same condition.

There are efforts to try to understand how acupuncture works on the body. The most sensible explanation I have learned is that acupuncture needles touch a tissue layer called fascia. Fascia covers every muscle and every organ in the body. Some researchers suggest that the fascia is like a continuous network that allows quick transmission of tiny electrical messages. An acupuncture needle may be able to  influence the body via the fascia network.

Another fascinating area of research in acupuncture involves fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging).  This type of MRI is able to look at the brain and see what parts of the brain are active. The “f” in fMRI stands for functional, as in what  is the brain doing at any given moment. Researchers have placed acupuncture needles in various well-known acupuncture points, and then analyzed the brain image with fMRI.  Each point on the body was given a name in ancient China, and the name often reflected the purpose of the point. There is point on the side of the lower leg called Guangming, which means “Eye Bright” or “Eye Brightness”. When an acupuncture point is placed in Guangming (called GB 37 in the Western point numbering system), the moment the needle is placed in that point, the visual part of the brain lights up on fMRI. Wow! That is pretty neat. How does a point on the side of the lower leg connect to the visual part of the brain?? We don’t know, but it clearly does, and the Chinese knew about this over 1000 years ago.

Another point that has been studied is “Hegu” or L.I.4. This is a famous point on the hand between the base of the thumb and index finger. L.I. 4  is known for treating headaches and pain. On fMRI, the moment this point is needled, a part of the brain lights up that governs pain perception.

It will probably be a long time before these ideas are thoroughly explored, but they are very intriguing and reveal that acupuncture does have measurable effects on the body.


How Do I Treat Pain?

My style of acupuncture is pretty eclectic.  I have studied with several master acupuncturists and incorporate those lessons into my style of treatment. I really value the teachings of Matt Callison Acupuncture Points on Handand Whitfield Reaves, who specialize in sports medicine acupuncture and bring a blend of Chinese thinking and deep knowledge of the physical structure of the body. I have studied with Richard Tan, who teaches the distal style of acupuncture. (this is where we might put needles in the knee to treat elbow pain) This works very well for some people. Other systems that I find very useful are microsystems or micro-images. I particularly like the Korean Hand system called Su Jok, and the German Ear microsystem.

My number one goal in my practice is to be effective and to provide real improvement for people. So I am always learning and striving to get better at what I do. For the past couple years I have been studying with Stephen Kaufman, a chiropractor from Denver. Dr. Kaufman has developed a system of treating pain called Pain Neutralization Techniques, or PNT. These are entirely manual (with hands) methods, and do not involve any chiropractic bone adjustment techniques. I find I can add these techniques to a regular acupuncture session and get better results. They involve gentle muscle touch or stretches. Easy for me to do, and very comfortable for the patient. One of the things that got my attention about Dr. Kaufman’s work is that his classes include quite a few medical doctors, some of whom are pain specialist MDs.  His web-site includes dozens of testimonials of practitioners helping people with very severe and chronic pain issues. His methods are a great new resource in my practice.

For more information about PNT see:

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