Can Chinese Medicine Treat Pain?

The treatment of pain, including chronic pain, can be successful with Chinese medicine with varying studies and preliminary studies suggesting that acupuncture (see research) and herbal medicine (see research) can both be effective in reducing the symptoms, depending on the condition. 

Acupuncture for Pain

A man grinding a herb in the Grove dispensary

The acupuncture evidence project found high quality evidence that acupuncture helped the symptoms of pain from: 

Link to the Acupuncture Evidence Project

  • Chronic low back pain,
  • headache (tension and chronic),
  • knee osteoarthritis,
  • migraine prophylaxis 
  • post-operative pain.

Moderate or high-quality evidence that acupuncture helps the pain from:

  • Acute low back pain
  • back or pelvic pain during pregnancy
  • cancer pain
  • labour pain
  • lateral elbow pain
  • neck pain
  • plantar heel pain
  • post-stroke shoulder pain
  • prostatitis pain
  • chronic pelvic pain syndrome
  • sciatica
  • shoulder impingement syndrome (early stage, with exercise)
  • shoulder pain
  • temporomandibular pain

Herbal Medicine for Pain

There is moderate or high-quality evidence that Chinese herbal medicine can help with:

So How Does It Work? 

There is a saying in Chinese medicine that when there is free flow, there is no pain and when there is pain, there is no free flow. The saying is talking about the flow of qi and blood, but what does this actually mean?

Let’s take chronic pain as an example. 

When it comes to chronic pain, around 90% is neurological. The nerves that carry pain signals to the brain are continually firing but the body’s own pain-relieving response is failing. This can continue on and on in a chronic pain cycle. 

The good news is that this type of pain responds well to acupuncture treatment [see researchsometimes without even touching the painful area. The pain reduction can be almost immediate and with the right number of sessions, long-term.

The situation is something like this: an initial injury has caused the body to ‘guard’ against the potential spread of infection by restricting local blood flow to the area. The sensory nerves that transmit pain signals are firing just fine, but another type of nerve, the proprioceptive nerve, is under-firing. The result is a failure of the brain to release its own painkiller chemicals. The area is in lockdown and as anyone with chronic pain knows, the pain signals continue to fire away, calling for help from an unresponsive brain. As long as the pain continues there is guarding and the area is starved of nutrients by the restricted blood flow, preventing healing and rejuvenation.

Acupuncture allows us to re-establish proper nerve function and stimulate the release of pain-relieving chemicals. Fine needles are inserted into distal sites away from the painful area, and the painful area is left alone. The trained practitioner knows what areas of the body share the same connection to the midbrain and by needling these other sites it is possible to achieve pain relief without even touching the painful area. The results can be felt within seconds. Once pain reduction or elimination is achieved, the brain opens up the blood vessels to the area and blood flow is restored (see research on chronic pain).