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Understanding how acupuncture work on managing pain | Yi TCM

Understanding how acupuncture work on managing pain

15 Feb 2024

By: Lee Hui Min

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medical practice that involves inserting thin needles into specific points on the body. Traditional Chinese medicine explains acupuncture’s effects through the concept of Qi, which refers to the body’s vital energy or life force. According to this theory, Qi flows through specific pathways called meridians, and disruptions or imbalances in the flow of Qi can lead to pain and illness. Acupuncture aims to restore the proper flow of Qi and promote overall health and well-being.

Acupuncture is generally considered safe when performed by a qualified and licensed practitioner. The risk of adverse effects is minimal, with the most common side effects being minor bruising or temporary soreness at the needle insertion sites.

What is the science behind acupuncture?

From a modern scientific perspective, there are several theories as to how acupuncture work in the body.  The following are some proposed theories of the effect of acupuncture based on current research:

  1. Neural Modulation: Acupuncture stimulates sensory nerves under the skin and in the muscles. This stimulation can activate various mechanisms that influence the transmission of pain signals. It is thought to promote the release of endorphins (natural pain-relieving chemicals) and neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine, which can help modulate pain perception.

  2. Local Effects: Inserting acupuncture needles into specific points on the body can stimulate local tissues, increase blood flow, and promote the release of factors that aid in tissue healing and repair.

  3. Central Nervous System Effects: Acupuncture can influence the central nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord. It is thought to affect the processing and perception of pain signals, as well as other regulatory processes in the body.

  4. Neurotransmitter Regulation: Acupuncture may regulate the levels of neurotransmitters involved in pain modulation, inflammation, and emotional well-being. This can contribute to pain relief, reduced inflammation, and improved mood.

  5. Connective Tissue Stimulation: Acupuncture can activate connective tissue cells, which play a role in tissue repair and remodeling. This may help with healing injured tissues and promoting overall tissue health.

More research will need to be done to truly understand how acupuncture work.

What are the common pain conditions that can be manage with acupuncture?

While its mechanisms are still being investigated, acupuncture has shown promising results in various studies and is increasingly sought after as an alternative or adjunctive treatment for pain. Here are several common muscular and joint pains that people may experience, and which acupuncture can be applied for the management of pain:

  • Back Pain: This is a common complaint and can be caused by muscle strains, herniated discs, arthritis, or poor posture.

  • Neck Pain: Often caused by muscle tension, poor posture, or injury, such as whiplash.

  • Shoulder Pain: Can be due to rotator cuff injuries, tendonitis, bursitis, or frozen shoulder.

  • Knee Pain: Common causes include ligament injuries (such as ACL or MCL tears), meniscus tears, osteoarthritis, or overuse injuries.

  • Hip Pain: Can result from conditions such as hip bursitis, hip arthritis, or muscle strains.

  • Elbow Pain: Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) and golfer’s elbow (medial epicondylitis) are common forms of elbow pain caused by repetitive motions.

  • Wrist Pain: Conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, or wrist sprains can lead to wrist pain.

  • Ankle Pain: Often caused by sprains, strains, Achilles tendonitis.

  • Muscle Strains: These occur when muscle fibers are stretched or torn, commonly seen in the back, neck, hamstring, or calf muscles.

  • Arthritis: A chronic condition causing joint inflammation, commonly seen as osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.


Acupuncture has emerged as a viable option for pain management, offering a holistic approach that aims to restore balance within the body. While more research is needed to fully understand its mechanisms and efficacy, acupuncture has shown promise in alleviating chronic pain and enhancing overall well-being. When performed by a qualified practitioner, acupuncture can be a safe and complementary addition to a comprehensive pain management plan, potentially offering relief and improving the quality of life for individuals suffering from various pain conditions.