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Chronic Pain and Acupuncture

Acupuncture can provide significant relief from chronic pain.

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medicine treatment that relies on the strategic placement of tiny needles into the meridians that span the body from head to toe. The needles are used to stimulate certain key “points” the flow of “qi” throughout the body. This eastern medicine approach, while not generally understood by the western medical world has been shown to be a safe and very effective treatment for chronic pain.

When using acupuncture for chronic pain, I will typically use both local points in the area of pain (i.e. in the low back, shoulder or knee) as well as on meridians to balance the underlying pattern of the patient (i.e. hot, cold, excess, deficient). 

How Does It Work?

Acupuncture has a variety of effects on the body. It has been shown to:

  • Decrease Pain Signals
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Promote blood flow
  • Stimulate healing and regrowth of tissue
  • Release natural painkillers (endorphins)
  • Relaxe muscle spasms 
  • Decrease stress thereby promoting tissue repair

How Often Is Acupuncture Needed When Treating Chronic Pain?

Plan on weekly treatments until you start to see a benefit, then gradually lengthen the time until the next visit. The best outcomes are usually seen when a patient receives treatment 1-2 times per week for 4-6 weeks, then tappers down to once per month for 2-3 months. 

What Does Acupuncture Feel Like?

Typically the points are painless, however sometimes there may be a sensation of a “pinch” during insertion, but it does not last long. In some cases electricity (called electro-acupuncture) may be applied to the needles to make it more effective.  Once the needles are in place, the patient rests for 20-30 minutes. Most patients will leave feeling very relaxed. For patients who are nervous about needles, laser acupuncture can be an alternative to needling. 

A case of arthritis in the knee: 

One of my very first acupuncture patients was a 60 year old man, Al, who was suffering from chronic knee pain due to osteoarthritis. He had already had the left knee replaced and his recovery had been pretty rough. His orthopedic surgeon had recommended the right knee be replaced ASAP because it was “bone-on-bone” arthritis. Al decided he would take 3 months to find a solution to avoid another surgery and decided to try acupuncture.

When he first came in, his range of motion was limited, he could not kneel and could not walk more than 1/4 mile without pain. After being treated once per week for 4 weeks of biweekly treatment, he saw noticeable improvement in both his range of motion and the amount of activity he could perform before feeling pain. At this point we dropped down to treating once per week for 4 more weeks. After a total of 12 treatments, Al was back to gardening for a few hours on weekends, and could walk up to 3 miles without pain.

For the next two years he received treatments once every 4-6 weeks. He also noted that his stress was lower and he was sleeping better even though these weren’t issues that he expected to see improvement in. After 2 years, I moved cities and was unable to treat Al, but I hear he is still receiving treatments and has been able to avoid that second knee surgery (almost 7 years later!).  Knowing what I know now, I probably also should have referred Al to physical therapy and worked more on his nutrition to get inflammation down and get even faster results…but what impresses me to this day is that the only change he made was doing acupuncture. 


Dr. Katie Rose, ND
Naturopathic Doctor Tucson
(520) 887-4287
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