How does acupuncture stop pain?

It is well known that acupuncture is excellent at relieving pain from a variety of sources, but many are curious as to how exactly this works. There are several ways acupuncture can help, depending on the location of the pain and the technique being used. Let’s discuss some of the proposed mechanisms.

Gate control theory

One mechanism is called the gate control theory of pain. This theory suggests that non-painful stimuli can interfere or “close the gate” to the signal of pain trying to reach the brain. Pain-sensing nerves travel along the same routes as the larger touch, pressure, and vibration-sensing nerves. If a signal is being sent up both of these nerve pathways, research indicates that they might indirectly inhibit the other from transmitting the signal further. And in particular, if there is a stronger signal in the non-pain sensing pathways, the pain pathways are blocked. This is why rubbing (pressure) can lessen the pain, or proper acupuncture needle technique (vibration), deeper in the tissue closer to the nerves, can have a significant effect.

Trigger point method

Myofascial trigger points are areas of increased irritability in the muscle. They are contractions of smaller groups of muscle fibers within a larger muscle. This contraction can deplete and restrict blood flow in the area, causing tenderness and stagnation of chemicals involved in inflammation and pain. This uncoordinated contraction can even pull on tendons and make the whole muscle experience pain and weakness. Inserting a needle in these areas can trigger a “local twitch response”. In simpler terms, it works like hitting the “reset” button on the muscle. After the twitch, the trigger points that were previously contracted will relax, and the muscle returns to normal.

Working with fascia

Closely related to this is a theory relating to fascial release, which has yet to be fully investigated in the West. The fascia is the thin covering surrounding your muscles and separating them from each other. Sometimes pain can be caused by the fascia not smoothly relating to each other. A lesser-known fact about our fascia and our bones is that they are piezoelectric. This means that mechanical stress, like pressing, flexing, stretching, or stimulating them with acupuncture needles, may not only smooth out the fascia, but can even set off electrical charges or impulses across the fascia. Theories suggest that these impulses send signals to other parts of the fascia and muscle, or even to the peripheral or central nervous system. This can account for both local and distant effects from simple small needle manipulations in the hands and feet.

Modern knowledge and ancient wisdom

In the classical Chinese view, pain results from qi and or blood stagnation. Over generations, acupuncturists have worked out a system of needle techniques designed to restore the healthy movement of qi and blood utilizing some the concepts described above.

If you would like to see how some of this ancient wisdom might help with your chronic pain issues, contact us today


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