How Acupuncture Treats Pain

The majority of Americans are in chronic pain or have experienced it.  More and more, people are seeking acupuncture for relieve of all types of chronic pain, from back pain and neck pain, to headaches and migraines, or chronic pelvic pain.

Pain can affect almost every system in the body and develops from many sources.It can occur from a chronic immune disorder, after an infection, from a physical injury, or from emotional stress. Often, pain stays around a long time after an injury has healed.

As a teenager, I first sought out acupuncture to treat my own chronic pain. For several years I suffered from back pain. It was quite severe for my age, keeping me from playing sports, getting regular exercise, and fully enjoying myself. No one knew what it was from and everyone had their own theory: I was growing too fast, growing too slow, my muscle didn’t develop, or my muscles were too tight. After trying various remedies, and being called a complainer by my not so friendly general practitioner, I tried Chinese medicine. It was the only thing that stopped the pain.

How does Acupuncture address pain?

Acupuncture addresses pain by helping the body heal itself.  It not only treats symptoms, like taking a painkiller, but also corrects imbalances in the body, thereby, allowing the body to heal itself.

Recently, several scientific studies have attempted to figure out what exactly this healing process is. To explain a few of the concepts, I’ll use my back pain as an example.  Although, I feel the pain in my back, the perception of pain is created in the brain.  Acupuncture works not only to heal the pain locally, in my back, but also in my brain.  Unlike other approaches, acupuncture treats both sources of the pain.

Often, the acupuncture itself focuses on the location of the pain. In my case, it was the lower back.The fibroblasts, the cells of the connective tissue in the area, actually grab onto the needle.The ends of the cells then wrap themselves around the needle.[i] Then the cells begin to change shape and rearrange their own support system, probably working to correct injuries.This is also a method for cells to communicate with one another, so one cell can broadcast messages of self-healing to other cells in the tissue.[ii] In addition, the nucleus begins to expand, which signals the first stages of gene expression to repair the cell and the tissue around it.

The phenomenon in which the body grabs onto the needle has been known to Chinese medicine physicians for thousands of years and is described as “getting the qi” which should feel similar to a fish biting a hook.  As a practitioner, this is how I know when the point is stimulated correctly. I can actually feel the body grab the needle, which tells me that the body is reacting well to the treatment.

Acupuncture Healing the Whole Body

While the acupuncture treatment may be focused on the painful area, the purpose of each acupuncture treatment addresses the whole body. As I mentioned before, one way acupuncture addresses the whole body is through the brain.

We forget a lot of things, like where we put your keys or our mother’s birthday. But, the brain does not like to forget pain. Often, the brain remembers pain long after an injury has healed itself. Using an fMRI scanner, a scan that tracks blood flow within the brain, scientists have shown that acupuncture can change the brain patterns for those with chronic pain.

One of the best studies that used fMRI focused on individuals with carpel tunnel syndrome.[iii]After the treatment, the pain was greatly reduced and the nerve health of the arm was improved. In addition, the carpel tunnel pain pattern within the brain was much more like that of a healthy person than before the treatment.

Working both at the area of pain and in the brain, acupuncture helps to reduce chronic pain by reteaching the body to be healthy.As we learn more about acupuncture we are also discovering how much the ancient clinical science of acupuncture and Chinese medicine has to add to our knowledge of the human body.


[i] Langevin HM, Churchill DL, Wu J. Et. al. Evidence of Connective Tissue Involvement in Acupuncture. FASEB Journal. April 10, 2002.Published Online.

[ii] Langevin HM, Bouffard NA, Badger GJ, Et. al. SubcutaneousTissue Fibroblast Cytoskeletal Remodeling Induced by Acupuncture: Evidence for Mechanotransduction-Based Mechanism. J Cell Phys. 2006; (207): 767-774.

[iii] Napadow, V. Kettner N., Liu J. Et. al. Hypothalamus and Amygdala Responseto Acupuncture Stimuli in Carpel Tunnel Syndrome. Pain. 2007; (130): 254-266.

Joseph Alban, L.Ac.

Joseph Alban is a New York Licensed Acupuncturist and Board Certified Herbalist providing the highest quality Acupuncture and Chinese medicine care tailored to your needs.
Joseph Alban, L.Ac.

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