Pain is a subjective experience. It’s a sensation associated with actual or crucially potential tissue damage and registered in different areas of the brain. Millions of people suffer from pain, both physical and emotional, and it is commonly treated by acupuncture. Chemical changes in tissue (say from trauma/injury) are picked up by tiny nerve fibres which are in everything from skin to muscle and this is translated into electrical nerve signals that go to the spinal cord and usually the brain. The type of nerve fibre stimulated gives us a particular sensation – sharp, hot, ache and so on. Over time with constant firing of particular nerve fibres, a ‘pain matrix’ in the brain can develop; a collection of nerve pathways and nerve brain cells linked to memory and emotions. Over time, the tissue may have healed, but the person can still feel pain – it’s locked into the neurons of the brain and often seen in chronic pain conditions. Such patient’s need their nervous system’s “rewiring” through focussing treatment on brain chemistry and brain and spinal cord nerve pathways. In Chinese Medicine we call these meridans or channels.
Acupuncture needle action within the body
At the site of needle insertion a complex reaction is initiated, as nerve fibres are stimulated. This involves the release of nerve chemicals called neuropeptides, which have specific therapeutic effects – down regulates pain, aids reducing inflammation, starts tissue healing, fights infections and increases local circulation. Depending on which nerve fibres are stimulated and which chemicals are released gives the patient a different type of sensation – dull ache, warmth, tingling and so on. We call this in Chinese Medicine ‘De Qi’. Clinical trials have shown that patients who report feeling a comfortable De Qi sensation yield better outcomes. The nerve fibres that yield these sensations terminate in particular areas of the brain and stimulate specific receptors which release their neurotransmitters. Other nerve fibres yield neurotransmitters in the spine, such serotonin and noradrenaline – and these can down regulate pain signals and increase wellbeing (antidepressant medications upregulate these neurotransmitters). These effects can last for several days.
Your nervous system and electricity
Applying an electrical current through acupuncture needles enhances the ability of acupuncture to heal and rehabilitate damaged tissue. Different frequencies have been shown to link to different neurotransmitter release, in particular our own internal opioid pharmacy has been well documented, as well as immune cells.
Because nerve fibres from our organs and muscle/skin etc enter the spine at the same levels, we can interrupt pathological nerve signals from organs by stimulating a point on the nerve pathway (called a dermatome) or channel in Chinese Medicine. This explains how, for example, I can impact your liver through needling your back.
There are number of theories that explain electroacupuncture’s powerful effects. I’ll try to be brief.
Our Chinese predecessors’ were observing neural receptors and pathways, but using a different language. Ours is neuroscience. We as acupuncturists are expert manipulators of the nervous system to effect profound healing. Think for a moment that our nervous system communicates and controls every cell in our body and every bodily function. The ancient Chinese were onto this a long time ago.