Life Can Be Stressful and Painful

Jenny Dull-Frost L.Ac. Diplomat of Traditional Chinese Medicine

High amounts of stress can exacerbate existing pain, and pain causes a great stress on our bodies.  Secondary symptoms start developing such as insomnia, depression, fatigue, irregular menstrual cycles, extreme menopausal symptoms, anxiety, panic attacks, weight gain—the list goes on.  Putting the body under constant “fight or flight” cycles can imbalance our endocrine and limbic system, which govern the hormones, emotional center, and other physiological functions.

Western medical researchers (mostly radiologists, anesthesiologists, neurologists, and acupuncturists/medical doctors) in the last 30 years in the United States and abroad, have revealed interesting information about our body’s response when receiving acupuncture for pain, depression, nausea, stress, etc. Ultrasounds, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), brain scans, and randomized control studies show evidence that the body changes in response to acupuncture.  For instance, when an acupuncture needle is placed at the pinky toe (UB 67 point), the visual cortex in the brain “lights up” on the MRI scan. This acupuncture point and its channel of energy flows to the eyes. Acupuncture seems to calm precisely the part of the brain that controls the emotional response to pain, said Dr. Kathleen K. S. Hui, a neuroscientist at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital, which has a federal grant to study acupuncture’s effects on the brain. Her brain scan studies show decreased activation in deeper brain structures in the limbic system, which governs emotions and other physiological functions; hence the relaxed, de-stress effect from acupuncture.  Researchers have also shown that acupuncture boosts levels of serotonin, which is often deficient in people with depression, and lowers levels of norepinephrine and dopamine, which are often elevated in sufferers of stress and pain.

Since the 1970s, Western medical researchers have known that one of the ways acupuncture works is by releasing endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. A recent National Institutes of Health randomized, controlled study of 570 people with osteoarthritis of the knee, showed that real acupuncture, as opposed to sham acupuncture and NSAIDs, used as a control, provided pain relief and improved function by 30%. This study can be found in the December 21, 2004 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine. Hundreds of thousands of Americans attain pain relief through acupuncture each year, according to a recent national survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Western medicine has been researching for a very short time in comparison to the age of acupuncture’s origins:  what is acupuncture and why does it work with our bodies—it is hard to explain each individual’s energy force by Western ways of thinking. Here is the traditional Chinese medicine explanation: the source of acupuncture.

In traditional Chinese medicine terms, good health depends upon three things:

  1. unobstructed flow through the body of energy, or Qi (pronounced chee), along 12 major channels,
  2. balance between the two life forces — cooling passive yin, and warming active yang,
  3. good lifestyle practices including expressed emotions.  

Illness or pain occurs when the flow of qi is blocked, or when one life force dominates the other.  Acupuncture acts upon the channels of Qi to keep our energy flowing, which moves the blood circulation. In the form of treatment most widely practiced in the U.S., hair-thin needles are inserted into the skin at specific points along the channels to redirect or unblock stagnant Qi. Each internal organ has its own channel of Qi which connects to other organs, orifice, muscle, tissue, and then ultimately to the brain energetically. The acupuncture stimulates the Qi and blood to move through the body towards the central nervous system (spine to brain) to release endorphins for pain, neurotransmitters like serotonin for depression, hypothalamus to balance hormones, vestibular center for nausea, and on and on.  Most humans undergo stress throughout life, emotions are involved, and physical detrimental problems result, such as stress induced asthma, panic attacks, insomnia, high blood pressure, sickness, shallow breathing, autoimmune diseases, irritable bowel syndrome, tight and painful muscles, migraines, PMS, etc. Do these sound familiar? Traditional Chinese medicine, including acupuncture, qigong and tai-chi, herbs, and nutrition addresses stress and pain by finding the root cause. By treating the root cause, the secondary health issues subside, and balance arrives in our mind and body.