Exploring the Benefits of Acupuncture for Pain Relief

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Acupuncture for pain relief

Acupuncture is one of the key treatment modalities in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). With over 2000 years of history, TCM offers a comprehensive medical lineage, incorporating the use of herbal remedies, nutrition and dietetics, movement, meditation, and acupuncture. Thanks to its efficacy and safety, TCM has grown in popularity globally over the last few centuries. Today, acupuncture and Chinese herbs are often used as adjunct therapies, complementing conventional medical treatments.

The most widely recognized application for acupuncture is in the treatment of pain. According to a meta-analysis published by the National Library of Medicine, ”the majority of reviews found acupuncture therapy to be an efficacious strategy for acute pain, with the potential to avoid or reduce opioid reliance. With an extremely low-risk profile, acupuncture therapy is an important strategy in comprehensive acute pain care”. It is commonly sought out for the treatment of arthritis, migraine headaches, back and neck pain, prenatal pain conditions, and post-surgical recovery.

What is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a method of treatment involving the insertion of thin, sterile, stainless-steel needles at precise points on the body, treating a multitude of illnesses. A practitioner may insert 5-20 needles per treatment, which, surprisingly, are relatively painless. Once inserted, the patient spends about 30 minutes relaxing on a treatment table, allowing the needles to work their magic. Many patients find acupuncture treatments enjoyable, likening the sessions to a spa experience rather than a trip to the doctor’s office.

The Traditional Chinese Medicine Perspective

Acupuncture is a branch of TCM. From the TCM perspective, the basic premise of how acupuncture works revolves around the concept of Qi. Qi, in its simplest definition, is “life force energy.” This can be a difficult concept for Westerners to grasp, but Qi can easily be understood by examining the energetic or metabolic processes that take place in our bodies. For example, our ability to transform food into energy and waste perfectly illustrates the inner workings of Qi.

The Acupuncture Points and Their Effects

Benefits of acupuncture for pain

Acupuncture points are based on where the Qi culminates in the human body. There are 12 major “meridians,” or rivers of Qi, where traditional acupuncture points are located. Each of the over 400 acupuncture points on the human body has a precise location and a specific effect on the anatomy. For instance, Kidney 1, located in the sole of the foot, is clinically used to descend excess from the head, calm the spirit, revive consciousness, and rescue the yang.

The acupuncture needles have three main effects, as proven through peer-reviewed research:

  • They improve micro-circulation, bringing fresh oxygen and blood to affected tissues and speeding the repair of those tissues.
  • They have an anti-inflammatory effect, which, again, hastens the repair and recovery from injury.
  • The needles affect the body’s neurotransmitters and, in doing so, can down-regulate pain.

These combined effects ensure a faster recovery from injury and less pain for the patient in the meantime.

Acupuncture for Acute and Chronic Pain

Chronic back pain

Acupuncture is employed to treat both acute pain (for example, following an automobile accident resulting in whiplash or spraining an ankle during a hike) and chronic pain. Patients with conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and endometriosis report significant relief of pain with acupuncture. 

Migraine headaches and back pain, irrespective of their cause, are among the most common reasons people seek acupuncture treatment. This study reveals acupuncture’s efficacy for the treatment of chronic low back pain. For many, it is simply prolonged periods of sitting for work that create these pain patterns.

Neck pain is another common complaint for which people seek acupuncture treatment. This article concludes that patients who add acupuncture treatment to their care have better outcomes than those who don’t. Acupuncture keeps them working their desk job without pain. Pain conditions due to cancer and cancer treatment are another area in which acupuncture treatment is very effective. Acupuncture treatments can help with any associated symptoms, from neuropathy to fatigue and nausea, and even menstrual pain

How Acupuncturists Approach Pain

When treating pain, an acupuncturist will first conduct a systemic evaluation. This is crucial, especially in cases of systemic pain conditions like migraine headaches or osteoarthritis. Acupuncture points will be used to bring the whole system into better balance, which could mean clearing toxicity for some or increasing the body’s innate energy to improve circulation or remove blockages for others.

For a patient with migraines, who have associated constipation, bad breath, irritability, and dry eyes, an acupuncturist would target the Stomach and Large Intestine organs with their acupuncture points to help strengthen digestion. The goal here is to get the migraines to occur less often and to a lesser severity. This Systematic Review of Research shows acupuncture to be superior to medications in the treatment of migraine headaches. 

How acupuncturists approach pain

Often in pain treatments, the acupuncture points are chosen based on which tissues are involved in an injury. For a patient with nerve impingement, say, due to a herniated disc in the lumbar spine, the practitioner will target the nerves above and below the affected nerve root to downregulate pain. 

If there is a muscle in spasm, acupuncture needles are used on “trigger points”. A trigger point is a hyper-irritable spot in the fascia of the muscle that, when needled, can elicit a twitch response and release the acute pain in that location. This can have an immediate effect in alleviating muscle pain. Here is an article reporting significant relief of pain in the upper trapezius muscle using trigger point and superficial acupuncture needling techniques 

Acupuncture points can be used to strengthen ligaments, improve joint mobility, reduce swelling, and even break up scar tissue. The strategies and results are as varied as the causes of pain. 

Qualifications of an Acupuncturist

In California, acupuncturists undergo rigorous education and clinical training. They are required to take pre-med classes as undergraduates, followed by five years of master’s or doctoral degree training. Part of this includes several years of clinic work under the supervision of other licensed physicians. After this, they must pass a difficult state board exam. Licensed acupuncturists in California are trained as primary care physicians and can treat any ailment, make referrals, and order labs.

When choosing an acupuncturist, you might want to start by checking whether your insurance provider can provide a list of in-network providers. After this, you could search online for reviews, especially those from patients who have been treated for the same ailment you’re seeking treatment for.

Risks and Comparisons with Conventional Treatments

The risks involved with acupuncture are very limited. Possible side effects include soreness in the treated region, minor bleeding, bruising, or in rare cases, a pneumothorax (a puncture to the lung). However, when compared to the risks of conventional pain relief methods, acupuncture is considered a much safer alternative. It’s important to note that acupuncture treatments also have the added benefit of harmonizing the whole person. Patients often report a reduction in anxiety, better sleep quality, and an overall increase in quality of life as a result of receiving acupuncture treatment.

Acupuncture holistic welness

What role does acupuncture play in holistic health and wellness? Well, many healthy individuals pursue acupuncture treatment consistently – anywhere from once a week to once a month – to prevent illness and injury. For those who already have symptoms needing treatment, acupuncture complements any other medical modality without interference. Many patients who are suffering from chronic shoulder pain, for instance, will get regular massage, physical therapy, and acupuncture until their symptoms resolve. 

I always explain to my patients that Conventional Western Medical application shines when treating acute, life-threatening conditions. TCM shines in treating chronic conditions, such as chronic pain, autoimmune disease, or issues with anxiety and depression. That being said, we are fortunate in the United States that we can take advantage of many resources in building our medical team. 

Many large insurance providers offer acupuncture and physical therapy in conjunction with medications and surgeries. For all patients, it is best to gather as much information as possible from all areas of expertise to create a comprehensive approach to recovery from any illness. 


So, what’s the bottom line? Acupuncture has proven, over many years, through patient testimonials and peer-reviewed research studies, to be an effective means of alleviating pain. As compared to medication and surgery, acupuncture treatment is relatively safe and effective. Acupuncture and TCM work well with any other medical modality and complement any medical treatment, from physical therapy and massage to medications and surgical interventions. 

Acupuncturists in the state of California are highly educated primary care physicians. Many patients report that they love their acupuncture treatments and experience a wide variety of benefits. When all of that is taken into consideration, it seems obvious that each individual should give acupuncture a try for what ails them. Whether you’re in pain or simply want to explore new wellness paths, we’re here for you at Solis Acupuncture. Ready to give it a try? Reach out online or give us a ring at 831-464-1605 to book your appointment. We’re excited to welcome you and start your journey towards better health.

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Lishanna Emmert, DAOM, L.Ac

Lishanna Emmert, DAOM, L.Ac

Dr. Emmert has been treating chronic pain for 15 years. After obtaining her Master’s in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture, she went on to do a Doctoral Program through the Henan University In China, then a second Doctoral program in San Jose, CA. Lishanna has done certification programs in functional nutrition, whole food supplements for pain and sports injury, orthopedic acupuncture, and functional herbal medicine.