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 people to understand the difference.
Acute pain is the simpler variety. for example, 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. We treat a lot of sprained ankles and other types of acute pain. For reasons nobody really understands, 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.
Another type of acute pain is pain that is work-related or caused by over-use. For example, people with this kind of pain might be: bartenders and baristas with wrist pain, construction workers with back pain, grocery workers with foot pain, teachers with headaches. If all of these people could quit their jobs, move to Hawaii, and lie on a warm beach all day, they wouldn’t need acupuncture. Their bodies would repair themselves just fine. But since they can’t quit their jobs and lie on a beach all day, acupuncture helps them to maintain their bodies to keep doing those physically demanding jobs. This kind of pain usually requires on-going treatment, at least for as long as the patient has the job that is causing the over-use.
Chronic pain is something else altogether – in fact it is a distinct neurological condition – and it’s much more complicated. 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.