We all feel pain from time to time. When you burn yourself on the stove or pull a muscle exercising, pain is the body’s way of telling you something is wrong and alerting you to a possible injury. Once the injury heals, the pain stops.
Chronic pain is very different: it persists, and sometimes can progress or reoccur intermittently over a long period of time. Medically, chronic pain is defined as a long-term condition that lasts for more than three months. Persistent or chronic pain is a widespread problem that affects around 8 million people of all ages in the UK. (Chronic Pain Policy, 2010)
Chronic pain may occur in a variety of locations in the body and for many different reasons, some of the typical conditions include:
- Lower back, shoulder and neck pain
- Headaches and migraines
- Neuropathic pain (e.g. sciatica)
- Chronic overuse conditions (e.g. tendonitis)
- Chronic visceral pain (e.g. irritable bowel syndrome, interstitial cystitis, endometriosis) (Singh, 2010)
Chronic pain is debilitating and draining. It may limit a person’s movements, which can reduce flexibility, strength, and stamina. Other health problems, such as fatigue, sleep disturbance, decreased appetite and mood changes often accompany chronic pain. It interferes with everyday life and affects mental health, raises stress-levels and takes a toll on our self-esteem, making us feel angry, depressed, anxious, and frustrated. The link between emotions and pain can create a viscous cycle: when you are in pain, you are more likely to feel depressed, and feeling depressed will make the pain even worse.
What can be done to treat and manage long-term discomfort?
Until fairly recently the treatment for chronic pain was bed-rest for weeks or months, however, today the NHS recommends the opposite: regular stretching and low impact exercise, keeping up activity and continuing to work, over-the-counter painkillers to control flare-ups, as well as physical therapy such as acupuncture. (NHS, 2018)
How acupuncture can help
Acupuncture involves the insertion of ultra-fine sterile needles into designated points on the body, which stimulate the nervous system and cause the release of neurochemical messenger molecules, such as serotonin, which change the processing of pain in the brain and spinal cord. The resulting biochemical changes influence the body's homeostatic mechanisms, promoting physical and emotional well-being.
In the last 20 years there have been numerous studies that have shown that acupuncture is effective in the treatment of chronic pain, including back pain, osteoarthritis, or headache, knee pain, shoulder problems, prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome and tennis elbow. Acupuncture helps in chronic pain conditions because the stimulation of certain acupuncture points affects areas of the brain that are known to reduce sensitivity to pain and stress. The stimulation also promotes relaxation and the deactivation of the ‘analytical’ brain, which is responsible for anxiety. Research also shows, that acupuncture helps to relieve chronic pain by reducing inflammation and muscle stiffness and joint mobility is improved by increasing local microcirculation, which aids the dispersal of swelling (BAcC, 2018).
I treat many clients with chronic pain. The goal of the treatment is to reduce pain and improve function, so the person can resume day-to-day activities. It is always deeply satisfying to make a change to the level of pain and see some of the symptoms shift or clear up completely, which has such a huge impact on a person’s life. One client who had been suffering with severe and debilitating back pain for over three years found that her symptoms drastically improved after a course of treatment. Her parting words to me before setting off on a six-week tour of South India, which would have been impossible previously, were:
‘Before acupuncture I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to live with this pain forever, but now I know that I am on the road to recovery and I have my life back.’
Tatjana is a traditional acupuncturist (BSc LicAc MBAcC) and a member of the British Acupuncture Council. In her practice, Tatjana combines two styles of acupuncture; Traditional Chinese Medicine which is well suited for a wide range of physical, mental and emotional symptoms and The Five-Element style which focuses on treating the core of a person’s identity bringing balance on a deeper level.
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