Can Acupuncture Help Nerve Pain?

Neuropathic pain is chronic pain caused by nerve damage due to trauma, disease, surgery, or chemotherapy. It’s a condition that affects people of all ages and often only achieves partial relief, resulting in disability and decreased quality of life.

Common treatments include nerve blocks and pain medication, supported by alternative medicine like acupuncture. So, can acupuncture help nerve pain?

Acupuncture works by rearranging the energy around the injured nerve and stimulating blood flow to the area to promote healing. But how does that work, really, and what do you need to know if you’re considering acupuncture? Below, we’ll answer those questions and more!

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medicine that involves sticking fine, sterile needles into pressure points of the body. Acupuncture is said to cure a range of illnesses and conditions by rearranging qi (pronounced “chee”) or energy flowing through the body.

Acupuncture is used for different diseases, and is most effective for certain types of pain such as osteoarthritis, migraines, muscle pain, menstrual cramps, and neuropathic pain.

How does acupuncture work?

Traditional Chinese medicine works on the principle of achieving balance between two opposing energies: yin and yang, light and dark, male and female. When there is balance, your internal energies or qi,  flow freely within the fourteen major passageways or “meridians” in the body, and so you are healthy.

When this flow or energy is blocked, your qi is disrupted. This blockage is responsible for the change or loss in function, pain, and lowered immunity that comes with disease.

Acupuncture helps by palpating the body and locating areas where tension accumulates. These places are called pressure points, acupuncture points, or acupoints. Qi flows around hundreds of acupoints along the fourteen meridians of the body.

These points are stimulated by the acupuncture needles to relieve pain or muscle constriction. Sticking the needles in these areas release blocked qi, restoring the free flow of energy.

Heat, electrical stimulation, pressure, and the topical application of herbs can be used in conjunction with acupuncture to produce stronger effects.

What is neuropathic pain?

Neuropathic pain is chronic nerve pain that can occur when the central nervous system – that is, the brain and spinal cord – become injured. Nerve fibres become damaged and may not fire properly, sending signals to pain centres when there shouldn’t be pain. The effect is a change in function both at the site of nerve injury as well as the areas around it.

Patients with neuropathic pain report a tingling sensation, numbness, or shooting or burning pain at the site, as well as referred pain in nearby areas. The pain may come and go of its own accord, but the cycle is usually chronic. Years of living with the pain severely hampers quality of life.

Neuropathic pain stems from a multitude of causes – diabetes, HIV/AIDS, nerve or spinal cord compression (e.g. sciatica, herniated discs), limb amputation, or autoimmune disorders (e.g. multiple sclerosis).

How does acupuncture relieve neuropathic pain?

Acupuncture has been recognised by the United States’ National Institutes of Health as a safe and effective cure for a wide range of illnesses as early as 1997. It has since been used as a cure for chronic nerve pain.

Acupuncture stimulates the nervous system by sending signals to the brain that these damaged nerves are in use. Acupuncture encourages circulation to the area of the injured nerve. The increased blood flow brings oxygen and nutrients to the damaged area, facilitating healing.

Stimulating acupoints also releases endorphins, feel-good hormones that naturally numb pain, as well as other neurotransmitters. These modify nerve impulses and block the incorrect signals of pain from reaching the brain.

How is acupuncture done?

First, your qualified acupuncturist will learn about your health history and perform a physical assessment. Using your baseline information, they will draw up a treatment plan.

At your session, you will be asked to change into a gown. You’ll lie on a treatment table as the needles are placed on the acupoints on your body. The needles must be sterile and one-use only to prevent bloodborne diseases. As they are very fine (almost hair-thin), patients report no to little discomfort from the prick during insertion, much less than the prick from an injection.

The needles will be inserted at various depths depending on the acupoint needed to be stimulated; they can be inserted anywhere from less than an inch to as deep as two inches. The needles will stay there for a number of minutes, typically from five minutes up to half an hour.

Depending on your acupuncturist’s treatment plan, you may have to come in for a series of sessions. Chronic conditions may require one to two treatments per week over a period of several months. Your acupuncturist may modify the plan over time, depending on your response to treatment.

After the acupuncture session, you may feel a heaviness or numbness in the area. This is called deqi (pronounced “duh-chee”), and it indicates the acupuncture treatment is working.

Are there risks to acupuncture for neuropathic pain?

There is very little risk, provided that the procedure is performed by a qualified acupuncture professional, the needles are sterile, and the items used are sanitary.

Expected side effects of the treatment may include slight pain or bruising, light bleeding at the needle sites, and deqi.

Some patients are not qualified for acupuncture treatment. These include patients taking blood thinners or those who have bleeding disorders (needle sites may bleed and have trouble healing), patients with cardiac issues (especially patients with pacemakers, and pregnant patients (acupuncture might trigger premature delivery).

Take a stab at it

Acupuncture is an ancient and widely accepted response to neuropathic pain, and it’s best used in conjunction with current medical modalities. If it’s included in your health cover, it may be worth looking into as an alternative solution to neuropathic pain.

Be certain to always consult your doctor before beginning any treatments aside from those prescribed.

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