In the aftermath of the opioid crisis, both doctors and patients are looking to safer pain management alternatives. This has fueled renewed research into traditional Chinese medicine. Used for thousands of years, Chinese medical practitioners take a different approach to pain relief.
These therapies are not only often safer, but also still produce significant evidence-based relief. Read on to learn more about some of the most popular types of Chinese medicine for chronic pain to see if you can find some new treatment options.
Most of us have some familiarity with acupuncture, as it’s been a staple in mainstream culture and a popular alternative medicine for the last two decades. Acupuncture is an ancient practice involving inserting small needles into different layers of the skin, muscles, and subcutaneous tissues at key acupuncture points.
In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), there are over 2,000 acupuncture points spread across 12 meridians. These medians conduct energy (“Qi”) through the body from its surface across the internal organs. The goal of acupuncture is to allow this energy to flow freely throughout your body.
If you prefer a more scientific approach, western scientists postulate that acupuncture works by stimulating nerves with the needle. In this way, the nerves are activated and better able to send the right signals throughout your body. If your chronic pain involves misfiring nerves, then this could be a great solution for you.
Research backs up the efficacy of acupuncture on chronic pain. In one significant study on nearly 2,000 women, researchers found that women who utilized acupuncture experienced less pain during labor and required fewer instances of medical intervention to alleviate pain symptoms.
2. Chinese Herbal Therapy
As with acupuncture, Chinese medical practitioners have utilized plant medicine for thousands of years. TCM contains thousands of herbal formulations for a huge variety of diseases. Consequently, Chinese medicine for chronic pain is a broad and diverse field.
Herbal medicine utilizes plant bark, berries, flowers, and leaves to treat pain. Each herb and herb compound is unique with its own particular properties and benefits. One example is Corydalis, a type of tuber used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. After it is ground up and boiled with hot vinegar, the compound is used to treat chronic pain.
And there is scientific evidence to back up its efficacy, as it contains the pain-relieving compound dehydrocorybulbine (DHCB). If DHCB sounds familiar to you, that’s because it’s gained fame the last few years as a pain management alternative to opioids since patients do not build a tolerance to it over time. Curcuae is another herb that is growing in popularity as it has proven effective in battling chronic inflammation symptoms.
However, before beginning traditional herbal therapy, consult with your doctor. Some of the plants can have complex interactions with drugs you may already be taking. Likewise, people with certain medical conditions need to take precautions as well. Just like you wouldn’t take a new prescription-strength pill without consulting your doctor, you should use the same caution when it comes to herbal medicines.
Overall, herbal medicines offer a huge opportunity for people suffering from chronic pain to find a safer alternative to conventional medicine.
While you probably have some familiarity with the first two types of Chinese medicine for chronic pain, you may not have heard of moxibustion. Moxibustion therapy is the practice of burning moxa, or mugwort root, to promote pain management. Derived from Artemisia vulgaris, burning moxa generates a strong odor and smoke that promotes circulation.
In TCM, it is used to remove cold from the body while promoting Qi flow and improving energy. Historically used to treat menstrual pain, moxibustion is a therapeutic option for joint pain and osteoarthritis, among other types of chronic health problems.
4. Chinese Massage (Tui Na)
Many individuals suffering from chronic pain have found relief from massage. Chinese massage, known as Tui Na, is a combination therapy including acupressure, massage, herbal medicines, and other treatments used in China for hundreds of years.
What makes Chinese massage unique compared to other types of massage is that the practitioner will ask patients a series of questions about their current health before they begin the session. This allows massages to be customized to the patient’s pain, and they may also involve the use of heat, ointments, and other items to improve efficacy. That is why Tui Na sessions tend to vary from person to person. If you suffer from musculoskeletal conditions, you may be well-suited for Tui na massage.
Cupping is a subtype of Chinese massage involving the use of plastic or glass spheres or “cups” placed on key locations around the body. During cupping treatment, practitioners warm cups using a flammable substance that will also remove the oxygen from within them.
Then the practitioner removes the source of the heat and places the cup against your skin. The air inside the cup cools, lowering pressure, which creates a vacuum that allows the cup to stick your skin. This vacuum draws the blood to the chosen area, which can be helpful for those with muscle pain in the back, neck, or shoulders.
Another technique, “Gua Sha,” involves using smooth stones, bone, or jade to scrape along the skin to improve blood flow and reduce inflammation. The practitioner does this until red spots and bruising cover a treatment area. While this can be disconcerting for some patients, it is not dangerous, and patients are only scraped with as much pressure as they can comfortably handle.
That said, both of these treatments can sometimes be uncomfortable depending on the patient’s type of chronic pain. It is best to consult with your doctor before trying these out for yourself.
6. TCM Diet
Nutrition also plays a key role in Chinese traditional medicine. What makes TCM so relevant today is its focus on nutrition as one of the central elements of our health. Practices are based on five tastes: salty (cooling), sweet (strengthening), bitter (cooling), spicy (warming), sour (cooling). In TCM, a balanced diet is the key to better health, and foods with these particular tastes will have certain health properties.
Interestingly, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach in Chinese nutrition. Instead, individuals are encouraged to follow a diet that suits their needs and lifestyle. Research into this area is still ongoing, but most healthcare professionals will agree that some of the key tenets such as avoiding contaminated and processed foods are recommended practices for not just people suffering from chronic pain, but everyone.
Is Chinese Medicine for Chronic Pain Right for Me?
Traditional Chinese medicine use is on the rise in the United States and across the West. That’s because it is clinically proven to alleviate and manage chronic pain systems. It’s becoming so widespread that even the U.S. Army began integrating acupuncture and other forms of alternative medicine a few years ago. And more and more physicians are adding it to their practices around the country. So if you think Chinese medicine for chronic pain might be a good choice for you, speak to your doctor today to see what you can start incorporating into your care regimen.
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The team at Pain Resource updated this post as of October 2019 with new information and resources.