Pain tends to come in two varieties: acute and chronic. Acupuncture treatment can be very helpful for both, but the treatment goals are different. It is helpful for patients to understand the difference.
Acute pain is the simpler variety. Acute pain is what results when you sprain your ankle: your nervous system sends you a signal that tells you something is wrong, and you need to stop doing what makes your ankle hurt. Acute pain is like a functioning alarm. You need to stay off your ankle in order to give it a chance to heal. Acupuncture speeds up the healing process; it reduces inflammation and swelling and also provides pain relief. Generally, for acute pain, we will recommend frequent treatments over a relatively short period of time.
A sub-set of acute pain is pain that is work-related or caused by over-use. Bartenders and baristas with wrist pain, construction workers with back pain, grocery workers with foot pain, teachers with headaches. Acupuncture supports their ability to heal and strengthens their bodies and keeps their jobs.
Chronic pain is something else altogether – in fact it is a distinct neurological condition – and it's much more complicated. Arthritis, back pain, sciatica, shoulder and neck pain is a few examples. Although about 30% of Americans suffer from chronic pain, it is often poorly understood, poorly treated, and stigmatized. Some pain researchers are beginning to describe chronic pain as a disease in and of itself, a phenomenon that occurs when, for some reason, the body's warning signals don't work. Chronic pain is like a broken alarm; it's permanently stuck in the “on” position. In cases of chronic pain, there is often no diagnosis that can adequately explain why people are hurting. Many chronic pain patients are terribly frustrated that they are suffering so much and yet “the doctors can't find anything wrong”. Healthcare providers who are inexperienced with treating chronic pain may accuse patients of drug seeking, malingering, or just plain making it up.
One of the advantages of acupuncture for pain management is that acupuncturists don't need to diagnose the cause of the pain in order to start treating it; what we mostly need to know is where, and how intense, the pain is. Also, while acupuncture is often effective at reducing pain, sometimes even when it isn't, it still improves a person's quality of life. Acupuncture generally reduces stress, benefits sleep, lifts and stabilizes moods, and improves energy. All of these effects can be helpful to someone who is pursuing a multi-pronged approach to managing chronic pain.