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How Acupuncture Treats Pain

Acupuncture has been a part of traditional Chinese medicine for over 3500 years, but only in North America since 1971. That’s when author James Reston wrote a book on the subject after returning from China. Since then, it has grown to become a popular form of medicine, successfully treating many conditions, including:

  • Chronic pain such as arthritis or TMD.
  • Recurring pain from injuries including the back, neck, and knee.
  • Migranes.
  • PMS.
  • Mental illness such as depression and anxiety.


While acupuncture can treat many conditions, this article focuses on how acupuncture treats pain.



Yes. I’m not just speaking from personal experience, even though it did make a big difference for me after a knee injury. There’s science behind the practice and evidence that keeps piling up. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health has been conducting regular studies on the effect acupuncture has on different conditions including the ones listed above. They summarize their findings: “acupuncture appears to be a reasonable option for people with chronic pain”.

Johns Hopkins, a leader in medical care and research confirms in this article that acupuncture has been proven to treat many conditions including headaches, menstrual cramps, fibromyalgia, tennis elbow, asthma and carpal tunnel syndrome. They’re also finding positive results from other conditions acupuncture is being tested on including Irritable Bowel Syndrome, hemorrhoids, sinusitis, sciatica, stroke rehabilitation, Parkinson’s disease, bronchitis and more.



Traditionally, this form of Chinese medicine is used to balance the energy in our bodies. The energy is called “qi” (pronounced chee). It flows along meridians throughout the body. If the flow of energy is blocked - much like water behind a dam, the blockage causes pain, illness, or a lack of function. Modern research echoes and reinforces this, but with a scientific twist. Acupuncture effects our nervous system, immune, endocrine, digestive and cardiovascular systems. The needles stimulate these systems, resolving pain and improving symptoms of their condition(s).


To work, needles as thick as a strand of hair are inserted into the skin at specific acupoints. Sometimes the needles are stimulated with pressure, heat or a mild electrical current.

Practical Pain Management released an article on the success acupuncture has had treating pain. In their research they discovered that the relief from pain comes from the acupuncture needle inactivating the source of pain by regulating endorphin levels.



Everyone’s experience with acupuncture is different, depending on the conditions they’re treating. Generally, though, your acupuncturist will begin by collecting your health history. He/she will examine your tongue - being interested in its shape, colour, and coating. The tongue can actually offer a lot of insights into our current state of health. Then your acupuncturist will develop a treatment plan.


When you begin your treatment, you’ll lay down comfortably on a table while the needles are gently inserted. Some you may not feel at all, others you may feel a slight prick. (You should know, it’s nothing like the needles you get when giving blood or getting a vaccine). These are thin, tiny needles that don’t penetrate very far. The actual treatment can last from 5-30 minutes.



Comfort and relaxation are a major part of your acupuncture treatment. You should feel comfortable in the environment and with the acupuncturist so you can properly relax after the needles have been inserted.


In Ontario, the practice of acupuncture is not regulated, however your acupuncturist should have received special training and accreditation often from the College of Chiropractors of Ontario or from the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner and Acupuncturist in Ontario (CTCMPAO). Regardless of their training, all practitioners should have professional liability insurance.

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