Acupuncture is an alternative to drugs for pain treatment

Tyme M. Gigliotti is a licensed acupuncturist and assistant professor of acupuncture and oriental medicine at the Maryland University of Integrative Health.
Tyme M. Gigliotti is a licensed acupuncturist and assistant professor of acupuncture and oriental medicine at the Maryland University of Integrative Health. (HANDOUT)

Doctors in the United States have been reducing the amount of opioids they prescribe for pain as the nation grapples with a deadly addiction epidemic. The frequency of opioid prescriptions written in Maryland dropped 13.3 percent from 4.2 million in 2013 to 3.6 million in 2016, according to MedChi, the state medical society

In July, a new state policy will require doctors to get prior authorization in certain cases to prescribe opioids to Medicaid patients. The hope is to get doctors to look at others ways of treating pain. One alternative form of pain treatment touted by some health care practitioners is acupuncture. Tyme M. Gigliotti, a licensed acupuncturist and assistant professor of acupuncture and oriental medicine at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, describes how acupuncture works to dull pain.


How does acupuncture work in the body to treat pain?

According to acupuncture theory, pain is caused by an interruption in the smooth and vigorous flow of Qi (pronounced 'chi'). Qi is often translated as 'life force energy.' It flows throughout the body's connective tissue along specific pathways called meridians. These are like the rivers that course though the land. The meridians, and the acupuncture points found along them, flow through every nerve, muscle, tendon, blood vessel and organ - connecting our head to our toes and everything in-between.


If the flow of Qi gets blocked, like water getting stuck behind a rock slide or a fallen tree, the blockage can lead to pain, lack of function or illness. The blockage could be physical or emotional. Either some part of the body can't move comfortably or function as nature intended, or the difficulty to move past an unpleasant experience results in feelings of isolation or sadness.

Acupuncture therapy releases blocked Qi and evokes the body's natural healing response by stimulating special points along the meridians that relate to very specific physical and mental functions. These include the strength and flexibility of the muscles and joints, proper organ function and the ability to feel comfortable and at ease. Extremely fine pre-sterilized needles about one-fourth of a millimeter wide are gently tapped into the surface of the skin to stimulate the proper flow of Qi through the body and relieve pain.

What types of pain is acupuncture used to treat and is it better for some pains than others?

Acupuncture is probably best known for treating low back pain and headaches, but it can treat individuals suffering from a wide variety of aches and pains. It is commonly used for acute pain such as a sprained ankle, chronic pain, digestive disorders, old injuries and even repetitive stress like carpal tunnel. Arthritis pain may also be relieved with acupuncture treatment.


Acupuncture, in addition to another therapy used by trained acupuncturists called cupping, is well known among athletes to naturally enhance performance and help muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones heal much more quickly. Individuals recovering from surgery also benefit greatly from acupuncture's capacity to help the body heal faster and more completely, as well as provide relief from the inevitable pain at the site of the procedure.

Why is acupuncture a better, or complementary option to painkillers?

Acupuncture is a very effective complement or alternative to prescription painkillers because it helps reduce pain using the body's own natural processes without any of the unpleasant side-effects. Medication doesn't always work for everyone, or the side-effects, such as difficulty concentrating, nausea, slow digestion, headaches or irritability, may be hard for some people to tolerate. When painkillers are used, acupuncture can help relieve the discomfort of potential side-effects.

When should acupuncture be used for pain?

Acupuncture can be used just about any time for someone in pain. There are a few exceptions, the most notable being that patients undergoing chemotherapy should refrain from receiving acupuncture within one to two hours before a chemotherapy infusion, and within 24 hours after a chemotherapy infusion. Acupuncture can be used right away to relieve pain from an acute injury that just occurred as well as a nagging pain that has been lingering for weeks, months or even years. Simply put, the best time to get acupuncture for pain is when you feel it.

How often does a person have to get acupuncture to treat pain?

It's important to remember that acupuncture helps the body naturally heal itself and that healing is a process. Acupuncture can help enhance and even accelerate the healing process. So while it may take some time to heal, in most cases patients actually begin to feel pain relief during the first visit.

How frequently a person should receive acupuncture treatment depends on their level and type of pain. In most cases, you will begin to feel better from the first treatment. For minor aches and pains that come and go, or for injuries that aren't severe, three or four once-a-week treatments are usually enough to get substantial relief. If the injury is more severe or the pain is intense it is recommended to get treatment twice a week.

The effects of treatment are cumulative, which means the physical and nonphysical benefits of each treatment increase as you go along. In addition to pain relief, acupuncture patients commonly notice an improvement in their mood and feeling more at ease overall after just a few treatments.

Are there any precautions people should take when getting acupuncture?

Acupuncture is extremely safe. Pregnant women, patients taking various medications including smaller doses of blood thinners, folks who bruise easily, even children can all successfully receive acupuncture from a trained and licensed professional for pain relief as well as many other conditions.

Individuals currently receiving treatments for cancer or who have had lymph nodes removed can still get the wonderful benefits of acupuncture, though your acupuncturist will take precautions regarding which points to use and the best time to treat you.

Your acupuncturist will take a thorough history, taking the time to listen and get to know you, which will help them identify any potential complications and discover how best to serve your individual needs.


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