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Does Acupuncture Help Relieve Chronic Pain?

Acupuncture has been around for thousands of years, but only in the past few decades has it gained any real traction in the United States as a legitimate way to treat chronic pain. We talked to acupuncturist and anesthesiologist Donna Mitchell, MD, about how this ancient technique can help treat chronic pain associated with chemotherapy, headaches, addiction and a host of other conditions.

Treatment by acupuncture. The doctor uses needles for treatment of the patient.

iTriage: What is acupuncture?

Dr. Mitchell: Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese treatment method that involves placing very small solid needles into soft tissue areas of the body to help the body heal. In extremely simple terms, acupuncture is thought to correct a person’s “qi” flow, which is thought to flow throughout the body.

It is believed that illness is caused when these flows are interrupted; acupuncture needles are placed into the soft tissues of the body to correct or restore normal qi flow. Over the last decade, acupuncture has become one of the most popular forms of alternative medical therapy. Acupuncture has been adopted nationwide as a go-to treatment for various medical conditions.

iTriage: What conditions does acupuncture treat?

Dr. Mitchell: Acupuncture is an effective treatment for acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) pain. It has been used to treat pain associated with many medical conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), pain, anxiety, sleeplessness, neck pain, back pain, headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, jaw pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia, side effects of chemotherapy, post-operative pain, addiction, pain associated with menopause and addiction.

How does acupuncture work?

Dr. Mitchell: Acupuncture appears to have a beneficial effect on the area of the body being treated. It also appears to affect the brain. The combination of these local and central effects helps to explain why it is used to treat pain. When acupuncturists stimulate a patient’s acupuncture points, the body secretes endorphins and enkephalins, compounds that help decrease pain sensation.

Acupuncture also causes the body to produce chemicals known as monoamines and other neurotransmitters that alter how pain signals are transmitted throughout the body. It is also believed that acupuncture alters how painful nerve signals are transmitted at the spinal cord level. Acupuncture also seems to have an anti-inflammatory effect and has been shown to cause muscle relaxation. Current research is exploring exactly how acupuncture works.

What research supports the effectiveness of acupuncture?

Dr. Mitchell: Some people are skeptical about the effectiveness of acupuncture in treating chronic pain. Western medicine has historically viewed acupuncture as having just a placebo effect (patients feel better because they believe they will). This way of thinking persisted until veterinarians starting using acupuncture on animals. Animals cannot experience placebo effects. While research is ongoing, acupuncture has gained a lot of traction in Western medicine as a valid treatment option that doctors can offer their patients.

In 1997 a Consensus Conference by the National Institute of Health (NIH) established that acupuncture treatment is safe and demonstrates positive effects on specific conditions. The list of conditions has been expanded since due to new studies and reviews since 2009. The Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs clinical guidelines recommend acupuncture as a supplementary therapy for many conditions including PTSD, pain, anxiety and sleeplessness.

Acupuncture has been shown to improve fertility and when used with in vitro fertilization (IVF) increases success rate. The German Acupuncture Trials for Chronic Low Back Pain published in 2007 a study that showed that acupuncture is almost twice as effective in treating lower back pain than traditional therapies.

Professional athletes also receive acupuncture to treat their injuries as well as to prevent injuries. Another population that can benefit from acupuncture is cancer patients undergoing cancer treatment.

My personal impression is that Western medicine and acupuncture can work together well, and many patients benefit from a combination of the two.

How do acupuncturists treat chronic pain?

When I see a new patient, I do a full history and physical exam. I examine their life stresses, diet, exercise and family history. I then create a treatment plan. In my practice, I usually also discuss traditional therapies so the patient is aware of all his or her options. Initially, I schedule acupuncture treatments close together to see how the patient responds, then I may schedule treatments farther apart, depending on the patient’s progress.

The duration of chronic pain, the cause of the pain, and the patient’s age and health are all determining factors that affect the speed and effectiveness of treatment. Some illnesses can be treated completely with acupuncture, others require periodic maintenance treatment. I also try to encourage patients to lead a healthy lifestyle with exercise, a healthy diet and weight loss, if needed. In severe cases, I may still combine acupuncture with other more traditional treatments.

Has acupuncture helped relieve your chronic pain? Let us know in the comments below!

Dr. Donna Fleitz Mitchell is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist and has been providing anesthesia care, acute and chronic pain management for the last 29 years.  Dr. Mitchell holds a BA degree in Biology and a MD degree, both from the University of Louisville.  She received a MBA from Auburn University.  She has also served on the University of Louisville faculty where she taught in the residency program.  Dr. Mitchell received her acupuncture training through the Biomedical Acupuncture Institute with extensive mentoring from Yun-Tao Ma, PhD and advanced study in Beijing, China at the International School of Acupuncture and Moxabustion.  She provides consultation and acupuncture from her Timbre Integrated Health office.  She is a Two-Time Ironman finisher and an avid skier, which gives her a unique understanding of athlete’s injuries and training requirements.  Dr. Mitchell continues to provide anesthesia, acute pain management and injection therapy at Front Range Surgery Center where she is also the Medical Director.   Donna is married with four children and resides in Niwot, Colorado.  

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