• Kearney DeFillipo L.Ac.

Managing Chronic Pain with Acupuncture



Pain can be acute or chronic. Acute pain is usually nociceptive pain and occurs from a trauma or injury and is necessary to warn you that you are hurt. Acute pain also goes away once the body has healed. Chronic pain is usually neuropathic pain in that it is not from a specific circumstance. Acute pain is a result of pressure from inflammation, whereas chronic pain is likely a result of damaged nerves. Chronic pain has also been shown to relate to changes in the brain. This amount of change has been shown to increase with the length of having chronic pain. (1) The use of opioids for treatment of chronic pain has been scrutinized in the recent years because of the drastic rise in prescriptions written by doctors, marketing by pharmaceutical companies, and social acceptability. Since 1999, the number of unintentional deaths from overdose of prescribed pain relievers has more than quadrupled. Prescription opioids act on similar brain pathways as heroin and morphine, making them very addicting. (2) The FDA recommends doctors become informed on non-pharmacologic therapies for pain management. Acupuncture is one of the complementary therapies recommended for non-pharmacological therapies. (3)

Acupuncture is well known for it’s pain relieving capabilities. It is a form of medicine that is used throughout the world. Recently, there have been many scientific studies looking at the efficacy of acupuncture. Studies have shown it is effective for treating acute pain and chronic pain. A study done in an emergency room setting found acupuncture to offer quicker and more effective pain relief than IV morphine and with much less chance of adverse effects. (4) In a meta-analysis looking at over 20,000 patients treated with acupuncture for chronic pain relating to nonspecific musculoskeletal pain, osteoarthritis, chronic headache, and shoulder pain, acupuncture was shown to be effective for treating chronic pain and having lasting results. (5)

Acupuncture for Low Back Pain

Low back pain is the number one reason why patients seek acupuncture treatment. Many people suffer from low back pain and acupuncture can be helpful for acute low back pain and chronic low back pain. Acupuncture has been theorized to help treat low back pain by 1.“speeding the relay of electromagnetic signals. This may begin the flow of pain-killing chemical such as endorphins.”

2. “Or it may release immune system cells in the body. Triggering the release of natural opioids. These are chemicals in the brain that may lessen pain or promote sleep.”

3. “Changing brain chemistry by altering the release of neurotransmitters and neurohormones. Neurotransmitters wither stimulate or dampen nerve impulses. Neurohormones can affect the function or activity of an organ in the body.” (6)

Acupuncture and the Brain

Recent scientific research on using acupuncture to treat carpal tunnel syndrome has shown that acupuncture has an effect on the brain, “…acupuncture rewires brain regions such as S1, along with modulating local blood flow to the median nerve in the wrist.” (7) As there is still much to learn about chronic pain and about the underlying mechanisms of acupuncture, this is promising research showing the correlation of acupuncture to root issues affecting pain. Whereas, pain relief medicine treats the symptoms of chronic pain and only lasts however long the medicine is in your body, acupuncture has been shown to change the way the body perceives pain and have lasting results after the treatment. One study found acupuncture pain relief lasted one year after treatment ended. (8). Acupuncture is a very promising option for managing chronic pain and reducing the opioid epidemic.

  1. Moseley, G.L., & Flor, H. “Targeting cortical representations in the treatment of chronic pain: a review. 2012.

  2. https://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/legislative-activities/testimony-to-congress/2014/americas-addiction-to-opioids-heroin-prescription-drug-abuse

  3. FDA Education Blueprint for Health Care Providers May 2017. https://www.fda.gov/downloads/Drugs/NewsEvents/UCM557071.pdf

  4. American Journal of Emergency Medicine. Acupuncture vs intravenous morphine in the management of acute pain in the ED, 2016

  5. Vertosick, E., Lewith, G., et al. Acupuncture for Chronic Pain: Update.. Journal of Pain. 2018.

  6. https://www.webmd.com/back-pain/guide/back-pain-and-acupuncture#1

  7. https://aeon.co/ideas/does-acupuncture-work-by-re-mapping-the-brain

  8. MacPherson, H., Vertosick E., et al. The persistence of the effects of acupuncture after a course of treatment. Pain.


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