About chronic pain

Back pain in Chinese medicine


Chronic pain is a huge problem in the UK, affecting at least 15% of the population at any one time. Over 70% of adults will suffer from back pain during their lifetime. Chronic pain can lead to depression in 22% of people. 25% of those with chronic pain will lose their jobs and nearly £4 billion a year is spent on incapacity benefit payments for people with chronic pain. The economic burden of lower back pain, alone, is nearly £11 billion in lost productivity and benefit payments.  


The most common approach for treating pain is with pain-killing medications. These can be useful in the short-term, however, in long-term, chronic pain cases, patients can become tolerant to medication, needing stronger medications and/or higher doses. This can lead to a variety of side effects ranging from nausea, vomiting, dizziness, lethargy and constipation to addiction, heart attack and stroke.



Acupuncture for chronic pain

Acupuncture, has minimal long-term risks associated with it and has been shown, in a range of studies, to be safe. It is also been shown to be at least as, if not more, beneficial than drug treatment for a variety of chronic pain conditions (though more research is necessary to validate this). The World Health Organisation, among other international health organisations, recommends acupuncture for an ever increasing list of painful conditions, including;

  • Abdominal pain
  • Acute spinal pain
  • Arthritic knee pain
  • Biliary colic
  • Acupuncture for back painCancer pain
  • Dental pain
  • Dysmenorrhoea
  • Earache
  • Facial pain
  • Fibromyalgia and fasciitis
  • Gouty arthritis
  • Knee pain
  • Neck pain
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Postoperative pain
  • Renal colic
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Sciatica
  • Shoulder pain
  • Sprain
  • Stiff neck
  • Temporomandibular pain
  • Tennis elbow

Recent reviews of clinical trials are becoming so convinced that acupuncture is beneficial for pain conditions that they are starting to recommend that acupuncture be adopted as part of a intergrated approach for treating pain.

How does acupuncture benefit painful conditions?

Acupuncture has been used to treat pain for centuries. It was known to do so by balancing the mind and body and restoring physiological functioning. Research is showing a variety of mechanisms that contribute to these effects. It has been shown to do this by:

  • Stimulating the release of endorphins and other neuro-humoral factors (e.g. neuropeptide Y, serotonin) that changes the processing of pain in the brain and spinal cord
  • Increasing the release of adenosine, which blocks the detection of pain
  • Modulating the limbic-paralimbic-neocortical network, which is involved in pain sensations
  • Reducing inflammation, by promoting release of vascular and immunomodulatory factors
  • Improving muscle stiffness and joint mobility by increasing local micro-circulation which aids dispersal of swelling and pain

In summary, acupuncture has been shown to be at least as effective as drugs in treating a variety of types of pain conditions. It has a diverse array of mechanisms that work to reduce pain and increase healing. It is safe to use in the long-term, avoiding any drug-related side-effects. On top of this it is safe to use along-side said drugs. It is also useful for pain-related-symptoms, such as stress, lethargy, and depression. More research is needed to be certain on these discoveries, but is it a decent start.


British Acupuncture Council’s chronic pain information page

Chiu et al. Acupuncture for cancer related pain

Wu et al. Acupuncture for post-operative pain