Many people have heard of acupuncture, but few know what it is good for treating or how it works. The idea of needles can seem off-putting and unhelpful Chinese terminology can make the whole thing sound mysterious or suspect. This is why, as an acupuncturist, a lot of my work involves demystifying acupuncture and helping people to see how it can benefit them and the conditions that it can help.
The most common issue that acupuncture can help with is pain; in particular, chronic pain that has been an issue for some time, but also acute pain from sports injuries or accidents. How does acupuncture do this? Well that requires a little background science. Any pain we experience requires sensory nerves to transmit the signal from the problem area of our body to the brain. Two nerves are involved with this: nociceptors, which tell us what kind of pain it is (achy, burning, sharp etc.) and proprioceptors, which tell the body the location of the pain. It’s the proprioceptor signal to the brain that should kick start a healing response in the body: the release of painkilling chemicals, and an increase in blood flow to the area. As a child this happens very efficiently, hence children injure themselves all the time but don’t end up with a chronically achy back, shoulder issue etc. However, as we age this signalling system doesn’t work quite so well, such that, after experiencing an injury or trauma, the signal from the proprioceptor isn’t quite strong enough to initiate the healing response. Instead we get a chronic painful signal from the nociceptor, our muscles tighten up and get knotted, blood flow reduces and we lose range of motion. It’s hard to break out of this loop, and without good blood flow, very difficult to heal; hence we resort to taking painkillers to stop the nociceptor signal, but the problem remains.
Acupuncture to the rescue! Acupuncture needles jump start the proprioceptive nerve, boosting the signal to the brain so that it sends painkillers to the affected area and increases blood flow. It can also reset knotted muscles that have become tense and shortened by stimulating the motor nerve where it enters the muscle. This means pain is relieved, muscles range of motion is restored (great for everyone, but particularly sports injuries) and the area can actually heal. This process usually takes a course of treatments for permanent lasting results as the nerve signal needs to be boosted a few times. However, reduction in pain and improved range of motion should be very clearly felt within one to three sessions, so you will be in no doubt that it is working. In addition, this boosting of the nerve signal isn’t as scary as it may sound; acupuncture needles are incredibly fine, and any sensation they produce is like a small, dull ache, which disappears within a few seconds.
Like any therapy it has its limits. Structural issues where something is out of place in the body (like a bone spur) and continually pressing on a nerve won’t respond so well. But if it’s clear acupuncture isn’t changing your pain I will quickly refer you on to get the appropriate medical investigation. Fortunately, in most cases the pain will be responsive. Conditions I successfully treat in clinic include pain of the back, neck, shoulders, knees, elbows, wrists, ankles, heels, sciatica etc. but also digestive problems, menstrual issues, headaches/migraines, to name but a few.
Get in touch to find out how acupuncture could help you.
Rob Veater, Licensed Acupuncturist, BSc(Hons.)