Many people seek help from a practitioner of acupuncture for pain. The presence of pain causes distress and interferes with the ability to perform the activities we desire.
According to Pain Australia, chronic pain affects of 20% Australia’s population, with an estimated 80% of sufferers not receiving adequate treatment. Pain may be solely physical but there is often emotional pain as well.
Chinese medicine understands different qualities of pain, resulting in specific treatments to resolve underlying disharmonies.
What is Pain?
Pain is a signal of disorder in the body, it is a warning light to arouse our attention. Our interpretation of pain signals is conditioned throughout our life, teaching us which pain is ‘normal’ and which requires our attention. For example, we understand the difference between hunger pain which is easily be remedied through food and stomach pain requiring medical attention.
Pain is defined by the International Association for Study of Pain as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage”.
Pain is a subjective experience however, and though we may be able to empathise, we cannot truly feel the pain of another. Margo McCaffery better describes pain by saying “Pain is whatever the experiencing person says it is, existing whenever he says it does”.
Chinese medicine has a very simple way of understanding why pain arises. There is a famous saying in Chinese medicine “Bu Tong Ze Tong, Tong Ze Bu Tong” which roughly translates as where there is pain there is no free flow, where there is free flow there is no pain.
This concept means that where there is obstruction to the free flow of Qi and Blood, pain occurs. This obstruction may be one that leads to physical pain, but also obstructions to our emotions and thoughts can lead to mental and emotional pain.
When we use acupuncture for pain, we aim to improve circulation of Qi and Blood. By doing this we can move excess accumulations, or nourish deficient areas to alleviate pain.
Pain classification in Western medicine
Pain is commonly classified according to its duration and its cause.
The first consideration is whether the pain is acute or chronic. Acute pain has been present for a short time and is associated with temporary or recent disease. Chronic pain is associated with chronic diseases and is defined as pain that has lasted for greater then 3-6 months.
The second consideration is whether the pain is somatogenic or psychogenic. Somatogenic pain arises from a disturbance of the physical body, which arises from activation of sensory neurons. This may also occur due to damage / malfunction of the nervous system.
Psychogenic pain arises from the mind, and is often attributed as the cause when testing and examination reveals no physical cause. This diagnosis of ‘it is all in your mind’ however offers little in the way of comfort or relief for those suffering.
Pain classification in Chinese medicine
When planning a treatment with acupuncture for pain, firstly the pain is classified by its nature and time of onset. This allows for an understanding of the specific causative factors.
When looking at the nature of pain there may be:
- Dull aching pain – the pain is more of a general soreness in a broader area. It is often not as intense, but may be present for a while. This is due to a deficiency of Qi and / or Blood which creates lack of movement.
- Distending pain – the pain is a more severe type of ache which is accompanied by a sensation of distension or bloating. This is due to a stagnation of Qi which is blocks movement.
- Sharp intense pain – the pain is often more acute and can be pinpointed easily. This is due to a stasis of the Blood which prevents movement.
- Heavy pain – the pain may be like an ache with a sense of heaviness. This is due to the presence of dampness or phlegm which obstructs movement.
- Burning pain – the pain feels like a burning sensation and feels better with coolness. This is due to the presence of heat.
- Colicky or cramping pain – the pain may feel like a contraction and the area may feel cool with a preference for warmth. This is due to the presence of cold which contracts the vessels, pulling on the surrounding area.
When looking at the timing of pain it may be found that:
- Pain is intermittent, coming and going at different times. This is due to a disorder of the Qi.
- Pain is continuous and always present. This is due to a stagnation of the Blood.
- Pain occurs after eating and improves with moving the bowels, which is due to an accumulation of food or Blood.
- Pain occurs before eating and worsens with moving the bowels, which is due a to deficiency.
- Pain is relieved with pressure, meaning a deficiency in the area is indicated.
- Pain worsens with pressure, meaning an excess accumulation in the area is present.
Acupuncture for pain
For example if the pain is present due to the presence of cold in the body, treatment will include a focus on reintroducing warmth to the body. This will usually include the application of moxibustion in conjunction with acupuncture for pain relief.
Conversely if pain is due to the presence of pathological heat, treatment will aim to release the heat and counter it with a cooling liniment, though not ice (read this post to find out why).
Through an understanding the influential factors in pain this way, lifestyle recommendations to avoid these aggravations can also be made to inform us how to continue living without pain in our lives.
For example one might suffer pain which is worse in cold weather, indicating cold is part of the underlying pathology. In this case it is recommended to avoid walking on cold floors barefoot and keep our lower back and ankles covered, especially in winter.
Given the high prevalence of pain conditions in society, Chinese medicine offers a fantastic solution that addresses the causes rather than just masks the problem with pain killers. With increasing research indicating the severe side effects of long term consumption of common pain medication, awareness of this approach to healing is important.