Woman receives acupuncture treatment for pain.

Everything You need to Know About Acupuncture and Chiropractic Care for Pain Management

Pain has a purpose. But even though we know that pain can be a good thing because it lets us know when something is going wrong with our health, it's hard to embrace something that, well, hurts – especially if it persists after you and your doctors have gotten to the bottom of what's causing the problem.

However, with the potential side effects and even addictive nature of some of the pharmaceuticals on the market today, for many people it's worth seeking out alternative therapies to help manage and relieve pain. That could be why more and more people are turning to holistic health practices such as chiropractic care and acupuncture to help them manage pain.

Patient receiving a chiropractic adjustment for pain

Blue Heron Acupuncture & Apothecary in West Ashley sees people with various types of pain, among them chronic back pain, migraines, fibromyalgia, arthritis, menstrual cramps, acute ankle sprain and tennis elbow.

"We often see patients in pain who are critical of acupuncture, but they've 'tried everything' and nothing is helping – so here they are," said Lauren Becker, an owner and acupuncturist at Blue Heron. "More often than not, they'll notice shifts with their pain after one to three treatments."

Acupuncture, a form of Chinese medicine where a highly trained practitioner inserts small needles into certain places in a person's skin, works to manage pain by circulating Qi, or energy, and blood along meridians, or channels, in the body, Becker explained.

"The flow of Qi in the meridians concentrates at certain areas – these are the acupuncture points," she said. "When needled, acupuncture points can regulate the way in which the body functions. While science has not yet discovered the full means by which Chinese medicine works, it has been shown to affect the electrical and nervous systems of the body, impact neurotransmitters and reduce substance P, which is responsible for the sensation of pain."

Though we may not completely understand the science behind why acupuncture works, it has been practiced for thousands of years and has been proven to reduce inflammation, alleviate pain and increase blood circulation.

"Amazingly, Chinese medicine works on physical, emotional and mental levels, offering a full spectrum of healing," Becker remarked.

While pain medication definitely has its place, it often works as a Band-Aid that treats the symptom, rather than treating the underlying problem. It might temporarily alleviate the pain, but the issue that's causing the pain will still be there.

Though Becker said that people often come to her after they've tried everything else – presumably pharmaceuticals and other traditional Western therapies – it might make more sense to start with natural treatments instead and go from there.

Pain medications, while they might seem like an easier and faster solution, often come with side effects and can be addictive. In fact, the CDC reported that "the amount of prescription opioids has quadrupled from 1999 to 2010, yet there had not been an overall change in the amount of pain that Americans reported."

It's clear that something about the traditional approach to pain management isn't working.

"What makes the most sense, whether you're 5 or 105, is to go from the least invasive treatment to the most invasive," said Dr. Matt Murrin, a chiropractor at ChiropracticUSA in Mount Pleasant.

Dr. Murrin went to medical school before his own injury led him to seek out the help of a chiropractor. He's been a believer in a more holistic approach to medicine ever since.

"If I have a headache, I'll try to get adjusted first before I try meds that make me foggy so I can't drive," he said.

While pain medication definitely has its place, it often works as a Band-Aid that treats the symptom, rather than treating the underlying problem. It might temporarily alleviate the pain, but the issue that's causing the pain will still be there, Dr. Murrin said. That can lead some to seek out more drastic treatments – even surgery in some cases.

And surgery has its limitations. Back surgery, for example, only works about one-eighth of the time, he noted, and even when it does work, people often must have additional surgeries later.

Chiropractic care, on the other hand, works with the nervous system to take the pressure off a nerve that's sending pain signals. Not only can a chiropractic adjustment help alleviate back pain, but, since the spine is the foundation of the nervous system, it can treat many other problems like ear infections and headaches, too. It can even help to bolster a person's immune system so they'll get sick less often.

"It's not just spine; it's any joint, because the nervous system goes to all joints," Dr. Murrin explained.

Of course, many people use a mix of providers to take care of their health. It's important to have a good primary care physician to make sure there's someone looking at the bigger picture who can refer patients to other physicians and specialists when necessary.

"I'm like the coach," said Dr. Don Hurley, a doctor of osteopathic medicine at Family First Medical Care. "We don't get the notoriety that the quarterback does, but the specialist will thank us for telling him we can't use a certain drug combination."

In other words, a primary care physician who is looking at the whole picture can help keep a patient's treatment plan on track.

Patients should look at their providers as a team, with everyone working together toward the common goal of health and longevity. There are so many different kinds of pain that even the best doctors don't know everything, Dr. Hurley noted.

"It's not one size fits all," he said.

No matter which modality you choose, it's important to find a health care provider you like and trust. It's always a good idea to visit a provider's website to learn about his or her background and training. Dr. Murrin cautioned never to go to a chiropractor who doesn't take X-rays.

"The acupuncture practitioner should indicate their training, what they are licensed in, who they are licensed by and if they went to an accredited acupuncture school," said Becker.

While there are many reasons to seek a more holistic approach to health, both Becker and Dr. Murrin admitted that it can take a bit longer to achieve results. With both acupuncture and chiropractic care, the number of visits necessary varies depending on the source of the pain.

One factor that sometimes inhibits people from seeking a holistic medical provider is the cost. It can be expensive and time-consuming to go to many different types of health provider, and insurance companies don't always cover alternative therapies such as acupuncture or chiropractic care.

Ultimately, though, to enjoy your life to the fullest, you've got to make your health a top priority.

"You only have one life," Dr. Murrin said. "And you need to invest in it."

A primary care physician who is looking at the whole picture can help keep a patient's treatment plan on track. Patients should look at their providers as a team, with everyone working together toward the common goal of health and longevity.

By Erica Rodefer Winters

INFOGRAPHIC: Holistic Medicine By the Numbers
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