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Acupuncture and it’s Effects on PAIN

Sep28th 2017

This second of a 3-part blog series on pain management is written from the perspective of Dr. Patti Farrell, Chiropractor at Leaps and Bounds: Performance Rehabilitation.  It will review what pain is, and it introduces the role contemporary medical acupuncture can play in the reduction of your pain.

The International Association for the Study of Pain defines PAIN as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage or described in terms of such damage”.  Pain is often divided into two categories: acute and chronic.

Acute Pain

Acute pain is provoked by an injury or disease. It usually results in an individual seeking treatment and allows them to guard against further injury. The pain associated with acute injuries is usually attributed to the associated tissue damage or areas of dysfunction, which are often resolved with treatment. Acute pain is often associated with sympathetic nervous system activation and can be self-limiting.

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is often considered a ‘diseased state’, as it continues to persist outside of the normal time of healing. It is defined as pain that lasts 6 months after the initial injury occurs. It can also develop from changes in the pain regulatory system as part of the central and peripheral nervous system. Chronic pain may have effects on one’s physical functioning, their social life, as well as induce psychological changes.

Pain signals are processed by different parts of the central nervous system, including the spinal cord and the brain. The nervous system, itself, operates when its cells (called neurons) communicate with each other through a basic electrical phenomenon.  It is at this level, where acupuncture is thought to help in retraining the pain system.  

Let’s take a closer look. 

Contemporary Medical Acupuncture

Contemporary Medical Acupuncture is a peripheral nerve stimulation technique that combines traditional technics and current practices.  It acts by altering abnormal activity that may be occurring in the nervous system. This is called neuromodulation.

Contemporary acupuncture has local, segmental, and supraspinal effects.  Local effects occur at the area of insertion; segmental effects occur at the spinal cord level that is associated with the affected tissue, and supraspinal effects occur when the signals reach the brain.  By affecting all of these areas, the goals of acupuncture are to decrease pain, increase blood flow to the area, promote tissue healing, relax local muscles, increase strength and coordination, as well as increase function of the tissues.

Acupuncture and Pain Control

Acupuncture’s place in modern medicine has grown tremendously over the years, and it is often sought out as a complementary treatment for pain.  The effects it has on the brain and nervous system have developed immensely and evidence now supports its clinical effectiveness to treat pain, especially chronic pain.  In addition, electroacupuncture, which involves a device that sends an electrical current through the needles, has been shown to enhance the clinical outcome and prolong the effects of the treatment.

As previously mentioned, acupuncture has effects on both the spinal cord and the brain.  The purpose of this blog is to discuss three of these mechanisms that have effects on pain signals at the level of the spinal cord.

1.) The spinal cord is often the first station to process pain signals and interpret them.  Acupuncture has actually been shown to diminish the transmission of these harmful stimuli from the source to the spinal cord by inserting needles into specific points that ultimately suppress the pain pathway.  The reduction in stimulus input to the spinal cord results in the decreased perception of pain.

2.) At the spinal cord itself, electroacupuncture has been shown to reduce the release of excitatory signals from the central nervous system that result in pain perception.  Furthermore it increases the release of inhibitory signals, which suppresses the transmission of pain signals at the spinal level.  So, decreased system excitation plus increased system inhibition equals pain reduction.

3.) Furthermore, acupuncture has been shown to increase the concentration of small proteins in our bodies called endogenous opiate peptides (EOPs).  EOPs bind to receptors in our nervous system to create an analgesic effect.  Electroacupuncture has been shown to further increase EOP release and similar analgesic-inducing chemicals, like serotonin.

As you can see, there are several mechanisms by which contemporary medical acupuncture produces analgesic effects and can help with pain management, often reducing the need for opiate-like medication in patients with chronic pain.  Opiate addiction has become an increasingly large issue in our society today.  So if you would like to learn more about the positive affects of contemporary medical acupuncture, please do not hesitate to contact us and we would be more than happy to help you.

It’s time to rethink persistent pain

 At Leaps and Bounds, if you are dealing with acute or chronic pain, you will be assured a thorough assessment of your condition, an individualized treatment plan, an honest prognosis, and plenty of coaching and education that will help you with self-management.  Speaking of which, here are a couple of resources to help get you started:

Recovery Strategies: Your Pain Guidebook  

It’s Time to Rethink Persistent Pain

Stay tuned for Part 3 of our series on PAIN, when Pat Stanziano, Sport Physiotherapist and Certified McKenzie Therapist, discusses the role that movement and exercise plays in the reduction of your pain.


Coutaux A. Non-pharmalogical treatments for pain relief: TENS and acupuncture. Jone Bone Spine. 2017 Feb. doi: 0.1016/j.jbspin.2017.02.005. [Epub ahead of print].

Elorriaga Claraco A., Fargas-Babjak A. Application of contemporary medical acupuncture as a neuromodulation technique in pain management. Jan 2004. Retrived from: pain/application-of- contemporary-medical- acupuncture-as-a- neuromodulation-technique- in-pain- management/

Elorriaga Claraco, A. Contemporary electro-acupuncture for neck and back problems: modular approach. Retrived from: Contemporary acupuncture for health professionals: unit 3 handouts on September 23, 2017.

Mansour ES., Nian XJ., Salah EB. Central mechanisms of acupuncture analgesia. Int J Physiother. 2015 Dec; 2(6): 1035-1040.


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