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6 Ways Acupuncture Relieves Pain

Because acupuncture can relieve pain without drugs or surgery, it is often considered ‘magic’. Though pain relief may feel ‘magical’ to those who experience it, effective treatments result not from sorcery, but from knowledgeable clinicians applying specific acupuncture techniques. Treatises and case studies going back two thousand years explain the extraordinary effects of acupuncture by detailing specific points and channels, describing how each can be accessed and stimulated to ‘free blockages’ and relieve pain.

Over the past fifty years, an enormous amount of research has been carried out in order to explain the physical benefits of acupuncture treatment, and how it achieves pain reduction.

San Francisco Acupuncture Group - an adult administering acupuncture on the neck of an adult

Let’s take a closer look at the natural workings of acupuncture’s analgesic (pain-reducing) effects:

1. Provoking the Body to Repair Itself

Acupuncture and dry needling stimulates a local self-healing reaction in connective tissue, muscle fiber, and the surrounding cellular environment by provoking local inflammatory defense and self-repair mechanisms that can quickly reduce pain and, over time, repair damage and hypersensitivity in networks of specific, active triggers. This is especially beneficial for pain from repetitive stress injuries, muscle strain, ‘pinched nerves’, and chronic low back or neck pain.

2. Mixing Messages

Did you know that, when you scratch to relieve an itch, you create what’s known as a counterirritant? A counterirritant is any stimulus—such as your fingernails—that sends competing messages to the brain, distracting the brain from the itch (technically classified as a kind of pain), therefore masking the itch. Acupuncture and electroacupuncture do the same thing as scratching. They temporarily dominate and replace existing pain signals with specific new ones, scrambling the pain messages traveling to the brain. All of this adds up to much needed pain relief. This therapeutic distraction is especially helpful in conditions of chronic pain like fibromyalgia.

3. Turning on Your Body’s Own Painkillers

Acupuncture and electroacupuncture stimulate the brain and central nervous system to release endorphins, employing the body’s built-in painkillers—without risk of constipation, addiction, or overdose. The effect of engaging the body’s natural resources can be used in a variety of conditions, and, using specific methods, is sometimes chosen as an option over analgesic drugs during some animal surgeries. (For example, see here.)

4. Helping Regulate and Direct the Flow of Traffic

Multiple lines of research indicate that acupuncture inhibits incoming (ascending) pain-inducing signals to the brain while amplifying outgoing (descending) pain-reducing signals from the brain. Effectively, this effect—essentially two lines of communication, ascending and descending signals, with the majority the descending kind—dampens the effect of the incoming pain messages. The net result is that fewer pain signals reach the brain. This may help chronic pain patients whose brain and central nervous system have become hypersensitive, anticipating and heightening painful stimuli.

5. Stirring the Inflammatory ’Soup’

Another way acupuncture reduces pain is by reducing inflammation or, more precisely, by regulating the activity of inflammatory chemicals, sometimes called the inflammatory ‘soup’. This is an important aspect of how acupuncture can help relieve inflammatory conditions like arthritis and tendonitis.

6. Happy Brain Chemicals

Several studies have shown acupuncture to affect neurotransmitters and their pathways, including serotonin and dopamine which enhance pleasure and reduce the experience of pain. Its influence on these chemicals helps explain the pleasant, relaxing ’high’ some experience during, or after, acupuncture.

Acupuncture may appear to work like a magic pain-relieving wand, but myriad studies support the above six reasons, and numerous others (see here for other examples), as to why stimulating the body with acupuncture helps to reduce pain.

When experienced clinicians stimulate the body to engage tissue self-repair by distracting the nervous system, releasing natural pain killers, helping direct the traffic flow of pain signals, improving the regulation of inflammation, and releasing ‘happy’ neurotransmitters, they are following a line of treatment which works in harmony with the nature of the body.

Personalized Care

If you have pain, you would likely benefit from acupuncture. Our team of pain experts are ready to tailor treatments to your unique needs to help you get and stay out of pain.