Benefits of Acupuncture, Exercise, and Meditation to Treat Chronic Pain
by Marianne Pierce
In 2019, it’s almost impossible to watch the news and not see something about Canada’s opioid crisis. This crisis came about as a result of doctors prescribing opioids to, among other things, help their patients manage serious, chronic pain. There are times the prescribing has been done for good reason, and the CPSA has noted a reduction in opioid prescription following new guidelines. In the United States, opioids were sometimes over-prescribed for more nefarious reasons. Opioids are an effective tool for dealing with chronic pain, but the potential for side effects and the massive addiction problem our society has developed have many patients questioning whether or not they’re worth the risk. We certainly recommend speaking with your family doctor about your chronic pain, but if you want to avoid hard drugs, this article should help. We detail three ways to help you cope with your pain, and why they work – acupuncture, exercise, and meditation. All three are extraordinarily low risk.
Acupuncture is a key component of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The practice involves inserting very thin needles into specific points in your body. Traditionally, this was seen as a method of balancing the qi – energy or life force – in your body. Western medicine isn’t so keen on the idea of qi, but that doesn’t mean acupuncture is ineffective; there’s a lot of evidence that acupuncture is an effective method of reducing chronic pain. There’s speculation that this is caused by stimulating your nerves and muscles, which causes the body to produce natural painkillers. How much you believe that acupuncture will work seems to have an impact on it’s effectiveness, but that’s true of all treatments.
One of the biggest advantages of acupuncture is that it’s incredibly safe, so long as you’ve chosen a well-qualified practitioner. The treatment is also extraordinarily low cost, and covered under many health insurance plans. When you go for acupuncture, your practitioner will evaluate your physical and mental health (mental health has a substantial impact on pain, as we’ll see in subsequent sections). They’ll ask you where you’re experiencing pain, and they’ll customize a treatment plan for you. The treatments can take a number of weeks, and you’ll generally visit once or twice a week. As the treatment continues, your practitioner will ask for regular updates on your condition, to make sure everything is working properly. You should coordinate with your family doctor and your acupuncturist, so that they’re communicating about your health – both practitioners should be aware of all treatments you’re undergoing, as well as any new medical conditions which may affect treatments.
Those in chronic pain know that managing it doesn’t just require a reduction in the severity of pain. You need to improve your physical well-being as well as your mental well-being to properly manage chronic pain. After all, the more easily you can function in society, the less your chronic pain is a problem. A study which analyzed a number of other studies, known as a metastudy, found that exercise may have a number of potential benefits for people who suffer chronic pain.
The study found that more evidence is needed – just as more evidence is sorely needed for acupuncture, and other methods of pain management that don’t include prescription painkillers. Exercise shares many of the benefits that acupuncture has – it’s incredibly low cost and relatively low risk. With chronic pain, however, one must be careful with exercise – you don’t want to do anything that exacerbates an injury. The metastudy found that, though the quality of evidence was low, exercise can help alleviate pain, improve physical function, and restore a sense of mental well-being. Talk to your doctor, a physiotherapist, athletic therapist, or another professional invested in your physical well-being, and ask them to help you devise an exercise routine to help manage your pain.
A third way of managing your pain without prescription drugs is through meditation – specifically, mindfulness meditation. We’ve already talked briefly about how chronic pain can take a toll on your psyche, and how re-establishing mental well-being is key to combating some of its effects. Mindfulness meditation is a method of noticing what’s going on in your surroundings, as well as what’s going on in your body, and recontextualizing it – observing your judgements about it, and letting them pass. This practice can help with chronic pain because our minds may inadvertently amplify the pain we’re experiencing through negative association.
There are, in fact, a number of links between our minds and the physical sensation of pain. They include what we just mentioned, which is a type of pain catastrophizing – things like fear of pain and trauma can also amplify the sensation of pain. There are, of course, some types of chronic pain that can be dealt with by finding the root of the problem; wearing glasses with the right prescription can reduce headaches, while changing your diet might decrease gut pain. For the pain that can’t be dealt with through more physical lifestyle changes, meditation is always worth a try.
That’s, in part, because meditation shares the traits we love so much about acupuncture and exercise – it’s extremely low risk, and it’s been shown to be effective, though like the other two, we need more studies to understand how effective it is, and why it works. Though the studies it used were deemed “low quality”, a metastudy found that mindfulness meditation reduces pain and depression. More rigorous studies should follow so that we can better understand the fundamentals.
Here at the Prairie Medical Acupuncture Clinic, our area of expertise is people needing help with physical and mental rehabilitation – we’re always looking into the latest methods of dealing with chronic pain and other conditions in order to help you recover and change your life. We want to help you do this without the use of opiates and other potentially harmful drugs, if that’s your goal. Those who are on painkillers can use our services, too. We want your life to be the best it can. We’re here to help you feel better.
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