The treatment of chronic pain with classical Chinese medicine

If you’re dealing with chronic pain, you‘re not alone.

Over 25 million Americans experience pain on a daily basis, and over 23 million report suffering from severe pain, according to the latest data from the National Institutes of Health.

Pain is not well managed in many cases by conventional biomedicine, which has led to a national opioid crisis among other problems.

Dealing with constant pain is tiring on its own, but throw in the challenge of trying to navigate a healthcare system that seems stacked against you, and a society that demands you justify the validity of your symptoms, and the experience becomes downright demoralizing. Let me assure you though that Chinese Medicine will never ask you to prove the credibility of your experience of pain.

treating arthritis pain with acupuncture

Our first task as practitioners is to listen to you, because it is precisely your own lived experience that will ultimately guide us to proper diagnosis and treatment. Your body has its own innate intelligence, and while pain can be overwhelming, it is also meaningful. All symptoms are messages, and when we experience pain we are experiencing the body trying to communicate something vital to us about the state of our health.

This is easy enough to understand in acute pain (which Chinese Medicine is also very successful in treating): there is damage to body structures and tissues, which makes the nervous system produce the sensation of pain. Pain is also associated with acute inflammation, part of the healing response to injuries. So we can understand pain as an alarm system for the body, warning us of danger or damage. In doing so it, our body is trying to get us to adopt behaviors that will avoid further damage and facilitate healing. If I sprain my ankle, pain should prevent me from using it, which will both prevent additional trauma and allow the injury to heal.

But in chronic pain, the relationship between tissue damage and the sensation of pain is less clear.

Pain can persist long after an initial injury when we would expect the body to have finished healing. And by itself, structural issues and tissue damage often aren’t enough to explain chronic pain. For example, recent studies of medical imaging reveal that many people who have no symptoms of back pain still have degenerative changes in their spine that show up on MRI or CT scans. This implies that structural changes and tissue damage are not in themselves sufficient to cause pain (if they were, nearly everybody over the age of forty would have debilitating back pain). So what causes chronic pain?

From the perspective of Chinese Medicine, health is a dynamic balance between the organ systems within your body, your mental and emotional life (which are intimately tied to the activity of your physiology), and the synchronization of your activity and bodily rhythms with the cycles of the natural world.

In other words, pain is an experience that emerges from complex feedback loops within our bodies and the way our bodies interact with our environment.

When the relationships between these different aspects of your life are in harmony, Chinese Medicine describes this as a state of flow. When these relationships become imbalanced, Chinese Medicine describes this as a state of blockage or obstruction. It’s a common Chinese Medicine saying that where there is obstruction, there is pain. If you suffer from chronic pain, then you understand  that this isn’t just a poetic way of speaking. Pain blocks your ability to take part in the activities you enjoy. It obstructs your freedom to move through life on your own terms.

Pain can put your life on hold.

But no matter how long you’ve felt trapped by pain, we have confidence in the body’s inherent self-healing ability. In particular, acupuncture provides us with sophisticated ways of determining where these blockages are occurring within the body, and to provide the proper stimulus for your body to overcome them, restoring a state of harmonious flow. In more biomedical language, we would describe the same process as restoring homeostasis by regulating the nervous system, optimizing the circulatory system, and modulating the immune system.

Regular acupuncture treatment results in lasting changes, and when combined with the full spectrum of Chinese Medicine, profound transformation is possible.

It’s also important to realize that symptoms of pain cannot be considered in isolation from the full context of your life. If pain is an alarm system, then trying to override it (for example, with medications or surgery) is akin to taking the batteries out of a fire alarm without trying to determine why the alarm is going off. As challenging as it can be, we must view chronic pain as an invitation to examine our lives, and ask if some part of our activity is at odds with our own well-being.

In the case of chronic pain, this is not an obviously dangerous activity, like touching a hot stove, and more likely to involve the activities that make up the rhythm of life – our habits of work and sleep, of movement and rest, our diet and even our patterns of thought and emotion. Pain is an attempt by our body to redirect our awareness toward these areas of our life, so we can make appropriate changes in support of health.

Chinese Medicine is not just a set of techniques, but a comprehensive system for attaining and maintaining health, rooted in an ecological perspective. In addition to guiding the healing process within your body, it can also offer advice and suggestions for how to synchronize our activity with the larger activity of nature. Healing from chronic pain with Chinese Medicine then is a twofold process.

With acupuncture, herbal medicine and our other tools, we can help shift how your body processes pain. And in the same way we restore flow within your body, we aim also to restore the way you flow through your life. I look forward to being your partner in that process!

Written by Watershed Team


We believe that healthy, thriving people are the foundation of a strong, just and joyful society.