March 2007 >
and chronic pain syndromes, as some of society’s most costly health
problems, have an enormous impact on individual, national, and global
levels. In the United States, chronic pain is the third most common
health-care problem, behind heart disease and cancer, with the combined
annual costs of lost work days, doctor visits, hospital stays,
pain-reducing drugs, and disability totaling an estimated $100 billion.
Long lasting pain often creates a chronic pain cycle: Pain, lack of
exercise, limited physical activity, chronic fatigue, stress,
depression, muscle tension, tightness, cramping, sensitive nerves, and
again, pain. Patients suffer from this pain cycle. Some patients even
feel that their quality of life changes completely due to a chronic pain
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), nothing in the human
body can function independently. Pain is the body’s warning alarm. It
tells you something is wrong. If you ignore your body’s alarm, similarly
to the fire alarm in your house, severe problems can form soon.
Human body functions are dependent on the life force energy-Qi. Qi and
blood flow through the meridian system, nourishing and protecting body
tissues and helping them maintain their functions. If, however, the body
is beset with disease or injury, normal pathological symptoms will
appear and affect the organs and meridian. Once the meridian is blocked,
the Qi and blood are not able to move along smoothly. As a result, the
affected area will not be able to get enough nutrition. In response, the
patient feels pain, tingling, stiffness, bloating, or numbness. Hence
the old TCM saying, “There is a blockage, there is pain. Otherwise,
there is no pain.”
The meridian system is just like a network. Each meridian is connected
with a specific organ. The organ damage may show up from the meridian,
and the local blockage of the meridian can affect the internal organ as
well. That is why in TCM, when treating a pain condition, the doctor
will not usually only focus on just the local pain, but also (and
sometimes more important) work to rebalance and harmonize the whole
Meridian blockage can be caused by external reasons such as excessive
cold, wind, dampness, dryness, fire (heat) or injury. It also can be
caused by emotional change such as anger, sadness, fear, stress,
depression, as well as an internal organ deficiency or malfunction.
Figuring out what exactly is the cause of the pain and which meridian is
blocked is extremely important in treating pain. Generally speaking,
relieving blood and Qi stagnancy, balancing the energy, nourishing the
tissue, increasing circulation, and building up deficient organs are all
ways that TCM treats pain. Acupuncture can be used to correct the flow
of Qi; Herbal medicine can be used to reestablish and balance Qi, blood
and moisture in organ networks, in order to avert pathological factors.
Clinical studies support that acupuncture is an effective modality in
the treatment of almost all kinds of pain conditions, including the
following: migraines, neuralgia, neck pain, back pain, herniated disc,
TMJ, tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, bursitis,
arthritis, frozen shoulder, shoulder pain, fibromyalgia, dysmenorrhea,
osteoporosis, sports and other injuries, surgical pain and even cancer
pain. Researchers have discovered beneficial immune and endocrine
alterations following acupuncture treatment. Acupuncture may actually
help prevent pain by acting on the sympathetic nervous system and by
stimulating the body to produce biochemical substances, such as
endorphins, to help reduce pain.
Chinese herbs for pain treatment are often used as formulas. According
to the patient’s condition, many herbs are put together like a group to
enhance the power of the treatment and reduce the side effects. Some
herbs have analgesic properties, and many of them are extremely potent.
Herbal medicine can be used internally as well as externally. They are
typically taken in the form of tea, capsules or concentrated powder.
Depending on the situation, some herb preparations are given in China
intravenously or subcutaneously.
Tuina, a body work therapy, is a complete system of body alignment based
on TCM. It utilizes acupressure, stretching and gentle manipulation to
restore balance and harmony in the human body. As an additional therapy
to acupuncture treatment, cupping (negative pressure from a jar), and
moxibustion (burning herbs to create heat) can also be used to treat
certain types of pain such as arthritis and fibromyalgia. Chinese
nutrition and exercise, such as Tai-ji and Qi-gong are also recommended
in pain management.
Berman BM, Swyers JP. Establish a research agenda for investigating
alternative medical interventions for chronic pain. Primary care;
Clinics in office practice, 1997; volume 4 (4): December.
IMC’s concise review. Alternative Medical Therapies For Pain. Overview,
2. Integrative Medicine Communications.
IMC’s Concise Review. Alternative Medicinal Therapies For Pain.
Integrative Medicine Communications.
Knardahl S, Elam M, Olausson B, Wallin BG. Sympathetic Nerve Activity
After Acupuncture in Humans. 1998; 75 (1): 19-25.