By Adam Cantor
Chronic pain is a growing and complicated issue. Millions of people feel stuck with their pain, suffering day in and day out with no resolution in sight. For many, acupuncture can shed light at the end of this very dark tunnel.
We know that the nature of chronic pain can vary widely, from musculoskeletal and neurogenic to gastrointestinal, urogenital, and gynecological. However, less attention gets paid to the emotional component of chronic pain, which can be caused and exacerbated by negative emotions such as anger, frustration, and anxiety.
Pain conditions that are emotionally charged—which, ultimately, describes all cases of pain, since being in pain produces negative thought patterns—often are unabated by the pain killers and anti-inflammatory medications that are so commonly prescribed.
Treating chronic pain effectively requires approaching it holistically. This is where acupuncture excels.
Acupuncture approach to chronic pain
In Chinese medicine, there is no separation between mind and body. The two are inexorably linked, constantly influencing and regulating each other.
This philosophy runs counter to the way chronic pain is typically tackled by mainstream medicine, which tends to approach the problem strictly through a biological lens. Biologically, chronic pain is fairly straightforward. Misbehaving nerve impulses fire consistently, alerting the brain to the presence of inflammation or tissue damage.
When we look at chronic pain holistically, there’s more than nerve impulses to consider.
Our thoughts have a profound effect on how our bodies function. Negative thoughts and emotions increase stress hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine, which overtime can lead to systemic inflammation and a deterioration of overall health.
Emotions, like physical activity, require the expenditure of energy—energy that could otherwise be directed toward helping to heal the body. This is why you can have days when you barely exert yourself physically yet feel exhausted by the end.
Our emotions can wear us out. Many people are overwhelmed with stress, anxiety, and other types of emotional turbulence yet remain unaware that it’s contributing to their physical health problems.
Acupuncture refuses to let emotional turbulence fly under the radar.
In acupuncture theory, the Heart is at the center of all human life and plays a role in all emotions. Appropriately, another term for the Heart in Chinese medicine is Emperor. If the Emperor falls ill, he loses his ability to maintain order in his empire.
When we apply that metaphor to human health, it goes something like this: The Heart, ruler of the emotions, must be healthy for the rest of the body to follow suit. In other words, it is impossible to effectively treat chronic pain (or any other chronic condition) without addressing a person’s state of mind.
So, how do acupuncture and Chinese medicine address our states of mind?
One way is by choosing acupuncture points and prescribing herbal formulas that boost or tonify Blood. In acupuncture, negative emotions, particularly when chronic, create internal heat, which eventually consumes and depletes the nutritive Blood of the body.
Blood in acupuncture is more than just the red liquid that flows through our veins and arteries. Blood is viewed as a substance of nutrition and healing, the conduit through which our emotions flow.
When negative emotions become consuming, as is often the case in people who live with chronic pain, it can lead to signs of what acupuncturists call Blood deficiency. Symptoms may include dizziness, heart palpitations, insomnia, fatigue, poor memory, pale skin and tongue, weak pulse, and scanty or light menstrual periods.
Self-care techniques for chronic pain
In addition to the use of acupuncture needles and herbs to address deficient Blood, an acupuncturist treating chronic-pain symptoms may suggest some simple self-care techniques.
Mindfulness, for example, teaches people to be inquisitive rather than judgmental about their ailments. It teaches us to approach our issues with an open mind and to let go of expectations. Cultivating greater self-awareness helps to bring balance to the body and mind. It also makes it easier to determine when medical intervention is necessary or when it may be okay to wait for the discomfort to pass.
Chronic pain sufferers often feel as though they are constantly in pain. But by using mindfulness to bring increased awareness to their symptoms, many realize that their pain actually has ups and downs, and sometimes disappears completely. (For more on the benefits of mindfulness, check out this article I wrote.)
Mindfulness is just one self-care technique that can be helpful in addressing the physical and emotional components of chronic pain. Your acupuncturist may also recommend pressure points that you can massage on yourself, self-administered moxibustion, movement therapies such as qigong, and changes to your diet. Ask your practitioner about steps you can take at home to support your acupuncture treatments.
If you suffer from chronic pain, pain medications may not be the only answer. Whether it’s an acupuncturist, naturopath, or Western medical doctor, find a clinician who is open minded and understands the importance of treating your body and mind as one. It may be just the change you’ve been hoping for.
Photo by Sara Calabro
Adam Cantor is a nationally certified acupuncturist who has studied in the U.S. as well as in China. He combines tuina bodywork with classical Chinese acupuncture to treat a variety of ailments. Adam was drawn to Oriental medicine because of its effectiveness at treating the whole person. He owns Mind Body Medicine Acupuncture, with offices in Glen Head, NY and Manhattan.
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