Brian B. Carter, MS, LAc
In my later years of medical school, I thought that pain treatment was below me. Even though acupuncture was best known for its effective pain relief, I thought that the Western medical world was simply behind as usual. We were amazed to learned all the other diseases we could treat with acupuncture, like neurological problems, immune system dysfunction, anxiety, and depression, and I thought, "Anyone can treat pain. I'd rather focus on something more interesting."
As I wrote about Chinese medicine on the Pulse website, I thought, "It would be more beneficial for acupuncture's image if I focused on something like psychology. And, people really need to understand the complexity and power of our herbal medicine system."
So talking about the treatment of pain wasn't really on my list.
Western vs. Eastern Pain Relief
But, I couldn't help seeing that Western medicine didn't have great pain relief solutions. They always have the side effects of some drugs, and the addictive potential of the opiates (their most powerful pain killers).
My wonderfully well-read wife subscribes to a journal called The Pain Practitioner (www.aapainmanage.org/literature/PainPrac.php). After reading that for a few months, I suddenly realized that they never mentioned acupuncture. That's crazy, I thought. After all, it competes with drugs in terms of effectiveness and doesn't cause side effects. Plus, it's superior in permanently removing neurogenic pain, and preventing temporary pain from going through the "grooved into the brain" process that leads to chronic pain syndromes.
When you think of acupuncture, the first thing that should come to mind is "Superior for treating pain."
Higher Standards for Pain Relief with Acupuncture
I've found that many acupuncturists do not enjoy treating pain. I think this may be because they haven't learned a style of acupuncture that treats pain effectively and quickly. In October 2002, I began a mentorship with Robert Chu, who had learned a quick and powerful pain-relieving acupuncture system from a student of the famous Taiwanese acupuncturist, Master Tong.
Dr. Chu has taught me several acupuncture systems that are not currently taught in acupuncture schools. His goal is immediate pain relief, to some degree, and immediate relaxation or a sense of well being in other diseases.
This is a high standard - we can't always achieve total pain relief with one treatment. It may take ten treatments to make a permanent dent in some situations. But I like having big goals. I think I'm more likely to make progress that way.
Location and Cause of Pain
In the clinic, first we find out where your pain is. If you've been in an accident, or there are nerve-related issues, we do a physical examination to discover the nature of the problem. For example, your pain may be due to a problem in the spine, messages from the brain, one of your internal organs, or because you've bruised a muscle, tendon, or ligament.
Sometimes, we can't find an obvious cause, even with X-rays, MRI's, and lab tests. We have to assume then that the cause is neurogenic- from the brain, nervous system, or even the psyche. Pain can be a manifestation of emotion. There's nothing wrong, or less valid about that kind of pain.
Actually, Chinese medicine is well-suited to treat that. And people with pain of a psychological origin may find their Western physician less sympathetic, because they always have to look out for addicts. Acupuncture, conversely, can treat addiction.
These are not the only causes of pain. It is important to know the cause, and not just blindly attempt to relieve the symptoms. Otherwise, ineffective treatments could be due to a missed diagnosis. Also, we may approach pain from a vertebral problem differently than we do pain of unknown origin.
Rating the Pain & Measuring Progress
For each pain location, I have patients rate the severity on a scale of 1-10. A "10" would be the worst pain possible, like giving birth or a kidney stone. Once we know the degree of pain for each site, we can assess how much the acupuncture treatment changed it. It's nice when there's an immediate improvement of 20-30%, or even 100%, which happens in some cases.
Sometimes, the patient can't reproduce the pain on the table because of posture, so we have to wait until the treatment is over. If possible, we can needle so that measuring progress is easier. For example, if your pain is worse when walking, we can needle your hand (this is distal needling- needling away from the site of pain- another topic entirely) while you walk around. Then we can tell immediately if we're on the right track or not.
Complementary Pain Management
At the same time, you may do other therapies. You might be looking into surgery, or other solutions- for example, than is a synthetic knee injection for people with very little knee cartilage. The synthetic fluid lasts for several months.
Interestingly, researchers have found that back pain does not always correlate to changes in the spine. They've found many people with vertebral problems that have no pain at all, and that some people with constant pain have no obvious structural changes.
To me, this underlines the primacy of the nervous system. Your brain interprets and creates nerve signals. Sometimes pain has to be "unlearned." This process may be accomplished with acupuncture alone, or in combination with counseling, meditation, or hypnosis.
In some situations, physical rehabilitation is indicated. Specific exercises prescribed by a trained physical therapist may help you regain strength and function in the affected part of the body. You may also avail yourself of the slow, demanding, and healing movements of Taichi.
The Process of Pain Control
For some people, pain goes away immediately, and they are otherwise healthy. In that case, their partnership with the acupuncturist may come to an end.
But, others are stuck with chronic pain, and need continual treatment to experience a better quality of life. In these cases, it may be better to see the acupuncturist every other day for concentrated therapy- we're more likely to shift the body's neurological patterns that way. If that doesn't work, the acupuncturist may help you purchase a microcurrent or tens unit- these are electrical stimulator pads that you can use at home (or, in fact, anywhere) to keep the pain at bay. The pads are applied to specific points according to the theories of Chinese medicine.
For those whose pain is cause or greatly influenced by emotional and mental factors, Chinese medicine can recommend dietary changes and new emotional habits. Taichi and meditation can have a normalizing effect on the nervous and immune systems as well.
About the Author
Acupuncturist, herbalist, and medical professor Brian B. Carter founded the alternative health megasite The Pulse of Oriental Medicine (http://www.PulseMed.org/). He is the author of the book "Powerful Body, Peaceful Mind: How to Heal Yourself with Foods, Herbs, and Acupressure" (November, 2004). Brian speaks on radio across the country, and has been quoted and interviewed by Real Simple, Glamour, and ESPN magazines.