Chronic pain is an exceedingly common condition impacting an estimated 76.5 million Americans, one-third of whom describe their pain as severe and “disabling.” When it comes to treating ailments such as chronic pain, I definitely prefer non-toxic options to modern medicine’s poor excuses for “cures.”
One such option is acupuncture, which can be an effective option for a number of health problems, but pain in particular.
In a recent analysis published in the Archives of Internal Medicine,1 researchers concluded that acupuncture has a definite effect in reducing chronic pain, such as back pain and headaches – more so than standard pain treatment. Real acupuncture also produced slightly better results than using sham needles, which suggests the benefits of needling are due to more than the placebo effect.
According to Time magazine:2
“The findings counter those of the last large study on the subject, which found that the needle technique was no better than a fake acupuncture treatment – using random pricking with toothpicks – in reducing people’s pain. But Vickers says his meta-analysis of the data, in which researchers reviewed 29 previous studies involving 17,922 participants, does a few things the previous studies did not.
For one, he and his colleagues began by looking at only the most rigorous trials involving acupuncture and pain relief – those that directly compared acupuncture treatment with some type of sham needle therapy in which needles were either inserted only superficially or placed in locations that are not known by acupuncture standards to be key treatment points in the body.
The authors of the analysis contacted each of the researchers on the previous studies to discuss with them how they separated the two treatment groups. By limiting their review to the most robust studies published, the authors could assess with more confidence acupuncture’s true effect on participants’ reports of pain before and after treatment.”
Clear and Robust Effects of Acupuncture
The researchers also went the extra mile by retrieving the raw data on self-reported pain. By standardizing the various study participants’ responses, they were able to more accurately assess and compare them as a whole. The team discovered a “clear and robust” effect of acupuncture in the treatment of:
- Back pain
- Neck pain
- Shoulder pain
On a scale of 0 to 100, participants who started out with a pain rating of 60 experienced an average 30 point drop (a 50 percent reduction) in response to the real acupuncture treatments (using needles); a 25 point drop when receiving sham acupuncture; and a mere 17 point drop when receiving “standard pain care” that did not include acupuncture. According to the lead author:
On a scale of 0 to 100, participants who started out with a pain rating of 60 experienced an average 30 point drop (a 50 percent reduction) in response to the real acupuncture treatments (using needles); a 25 point drop when receiving sham acupuncture; and a mere 17 point drop when receiving “standard pain care” that did not include acupuncture. According to the lead author:3
“The effects of acupuncture are statistically significant and different from those of sham or placebo treatments… So we conclude that the effects aren’t due merely to the placebo effect.”
Furthermore, as reported by HealthDay:4
“The authors stressed that although the superiority of true acupuncture over sham acupuncture appeared to be relatively small, the real-world choice patients face is not between acupuncture or fake acupuncture but rather between acupuncture or no acupuncture at all. And in that context they suggested that their findings are ‘of major importance for clinical practice.’
‘Basically what we see here is that the pain relief difference from acupuncture versus no acupuncture is notable, and important, and difficult to ignore,’ [lead author] Vickers said.”
What is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medical practice with roots that go back thousands of years. According to the Eastern mindset, your body is a cohesive unit, or whole – a complex system where everything within it is inter-connected, and where each part affects all other parts. A major component is the acceptance of an invisible flow of chi (or ki). This chi can be translated as “energy” or “life force,” which circulates through meridians in your body. When energetic blocks or deficiencies occur within a meridian, an imbalance is created that can cause a ripple effect of physical symptoms. Needles inserted into certain points along the meridians can stimulate sluggish chi, disperse blocks, or otherwise manipulate the flow of energy.
In essence, lack of balance within this bio-energetic system – which also includes blood flow and nutrients – is the precursor to all illness. Your body exhibits symptoms when suffering from inner disease and if it is not rebalanced, these symptoms may lead to acute or chronic illnesses of all kinds.
Chinese medicine, contrary to Western allopathic medicine, does not treat symptoms, but rather seeks to find the origin of the imbalance that produced the symptoms in the first place. Another major difference is that acupuncture, which is part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), is remarkably safe with few, if any, negative side effects, so it certainly doesn’t hurt to try.
Traditionally, acupuncture is used to treat all kinds of health problems. In many Asian cultures, you see an acupuncturist in the same way you’d see a primary care physician here in the West, and in some US states acupuncturists are in fact considered primary health care physicians. Still, many Westerners have been slow to grasp this type of holistic view, where your body is perceived as being perfectly capable of self-correction and healing without drug intervention. Scientists are still at a loss to explain why acupuncture works, but for those who get relief or healing, the mechanics may not be of great importance.
Other Alternative Pain Treatments
Besides acupuncture, there are a number of treatment modalities that can help ease pain, such as:
- Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT): Few people want to be told that their pain is psychological or emotional in origin, but there’s quite a bit of evidence that backs this up. Underlying emotional issues and unresolved trauma can have a massive influence on your health, particularly as it relates to physical pain. According to Dr. John Sarno, a psychiatrist who uses mind-body techniques to treat patients with severe low back pain, EFT has a greater than 80 percent success rate
- Chiropractic adjustments: According to a recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine5 and funded by the National Institutes of Health, patients with neck pain who used a chiropractor and/or exercise were more than twice as likely to be pain free in 12 weeks compared to those who took medication
- Massage: Massage releases endorphins, which help induce relaxation, relieve pain, and reduce levels of stress chemicals such as cortisol and noradrenaline – reversing the damaging effects of stress by slowing heart rate, respiration and metabolism and lowering raised blood pressure. It is a particularly effective therapy for stress-related tension, which experts believe accounts for as much as 80 to 90 percent of disease
- Neuro-Structural Integration Technique (NST): NST is a gentle, non-invasive technique that stimulates your body’s reflexes, which can provide relief for back pain. Simple movements are done across muscles, nerves and connective tissue, which helps your neuromuscular system to reset all related tension levels, promoting natural healing. The results can be both profound and lasting, and are usually apparent within two or three sessions.
More Natural Solutions for Pain
If you have chronic pain of any kind, please understand that there are many safe and effective alternatives to prescription and over-the-counter painkillers, though they may require some patience. Among the best are:
- Start taking a high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fat like krill oil. Omega-3 fats are precursors to mediators of inflammation called prostaglandins. (In fact, that is how anti-inflammatory painkillers work, they positively influence prostaglandins.) The omega-3 fats EPA and DHA contained in krill oil have also been found in many animal and clinical studies to have anti-inflammatory properties.
- Reduce your intake of most processed foods as not only do they contain sugar and additives but most are loaded with omega-6 fats that upset your delicate omega 3-6 ratio, which will contribute to inflammation.
- Eliminate or radically reduce most grains and sugars (especially fructose) from your diet. Avoiding grains and sugars will lower your insulin and leptin levels. Elevated insulin and leptin levels are one of the most profound stimulators of inflammatory prostaglandin production. That is why eliminating sugar and grains is so important to controlling your pain.
- Optimize your production of vitamin D by getting regular, appropriate sun exposure, which will work through a variety of different mechanisms to reduce your pain.
In the meantime, you don’t need to suffer unnecessarily. Following are options that provide excellent pain relief without any of the health hazards that pain medications often carry.
- Astaxanthin: One of the most effective oil-soluble antioxidants known. It has very potent anti-inflammatory properties and in many cases works far more effectively than NSAIDs. Higher doses are typically required and one may need 8 mg or more per day to achieve this benefit.
- Ginger: This herb is anti-inflammatory and offers pain relief and stomach-settling properties. Fresh ginger works well steeped in boiling water as a tea or grated into vegetable juice.
- Curcumin: Curcumin is the primary therapeutic compound identified in the spice turmeric. In a study of osteoarthritis patients, those who added 200 mg of curcumin a day to their treatment plan had reduced pain and increased mobility. In fact, curcumin has been shown in over 50 clinical studies to have potent anti-inflammatory activity, as well as demonstrating the ability in four studies to reduce Tylenol-associated adverse health effects.
- Boswellia: Also known as boswellin or “Indian frankincense,” this herb contains powerful anti-inflammatory properties, which have been prized for thousands of years. This is one of my personal favorites as I have seen it work well with many rheumatoid arthritis patients.
- Bromelain: This protein-digesting enzyme, found in pineapples, is a natural anti-inflammatory. It can be taken in supplement form, but eating fresh pineapple may also be helpful. Keep in mind that most of the bromelain is found within the core of the pineapple, so consider leaving a little of the pulpy core intact when you consume the fruit.
- Cetyl Myristoleate (CMO): This oil, found in fish and dairy butter, acts as a “joint lubricant” and an anti-inflammatory. I have used a topical preparation for myself to relieve ganglion cysts and a mild annoying carpal tunnel syndrome that pops up when I type too much on non-ergonomic keyboards.
- Evening Primrose, Black Currant and Borage Oils: These contain the fatty acid gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which is useful for treating arthritic pain.
- Cayenne Cream: Also called capsaicin cream, this spice comes from dried hot peppers. It alleviates pain by depleting the body’s supply of substance P, a chemical component of nerve cells that transmit pain signals to your brain.
1 Archives of Internal Medicine 2012 Sep 10:1-10 [Epub ahead of print]
2 Time Healthland September 11, 2012
3 See ref 1
4 Healthday.com September 10, 2012
5 Annals of Internal Medicine January 3, 2012 vol. 156 no. 1 Part 1 1-10