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Treating chronic pain and musculoskeletal pain with acupuncture

Acupuncture has been proven to relieve and manage chronic pain safely and effectively. It is, in fact, mentioned in the UK’s NICE guidelines as a suitable option for the treatment of both headache[1] and chronic pain[2], although is effective at the treatment of much more.

Acupuncture treating chronic pain in legs
(c) Antoni Shkraba from Pexels

Chronic pain and musculoskeletal injury (neck, shoulder and back) can be debilitating pain and injuries to live with, particularly if traditional pain relief doesn’t work. As well as being physically challenging, it can be emotionally exhausting and impede severely on everyday life. In traditional acupuncture, the physical and emotional elements are all interconnected; therefore it makes sense that a physical injury can cause emotional upset – and indeed vice versa. Many musculoskeletal issues must also be examined at a deeper level, to understand any underlying causes. In the use of acupuncture for chronic pain and injury, we consider the whole body and its wellness, not just the affected area.

In the Origins of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), I talk more about the flow of yin and yang, which makes up the energy force Qi (chi). In acupuncture, as well as TCM, the central philosophy is about balance. So, where Western medicine might be seen to focus on the symptoms of an issue, rather than its cause – the plaster over pain – rather than finding its root, for example, acupuncture applies a more whole-body approach. Practitioners believe that this is why headaches and chronic pain issues are treated so effectively with acupuncture.

A common issue with pain can be myofascial, where the muscle has been scarred, or become sensitive over time, either through injury or overuse. Myofascial trigger points are treated excellently with acupuncture, offering relief from some of the causes (and symptoms) of chronic pain and muscle injury.

I usually recommend a course of treatment, particularly as acupuncture has been shown to be consistently clinically effective – and cost-effective – in the short-term (three months), which is why NICE includes it as a treatment option[3]. A large-scale study in 2018, with over 20,000 adults with osteoarthritis, chronic headache and musculoskeletal (back, neck or shoulder) pain also found that acupuncture was more effective than the control and was not simply a placebo. In addition, the same study found that the effects of acupuncture treatment lasted longer than three months, with just a 15% reduction at one year[4].



[1] Headaches in over 12s: diagnosis and management (CG150) [2] Chronic pain (primary and secondary) in over 16s: assessment of all chronic pain and management of chronic primary pain (CG193) [3] NICE Evidence review, April 2021, Chronic pain (primary and secondary) in over 16s: [G] Evidence review for acupuncture for chronic primary pain NICE guideline NG193. [4] Vickers et al 2018, Acupuncture for chronic pain: update of an individual patient data meta-analysis.

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