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Trying Acupuncture for Pain Relief

  • 15 Jul 2022
  • 3 mins

Acupuncture may be just as effective in treating chronic pain and has become a popular alternative therapy1 for pain management. We asked Dr. Wilson Tay, our Pain Specialist, and Anesthesiologist, to tell us more. Dr. Tay is also a registered acupuncturist with the Singapore Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners Board.

Is acupuncture an effective treatment for chronic pain, and which types of pain can it treat?

Acupuncture is a practice of traditional Chinese medicine in which thin needles are placed at specific points in the body (Acupoints) to treat various medical conditions.

Yes. Acupuncture has been shown to be effective in managing chronic pain conditions. In Singapore, it is primarily used as an adjunctive therapy to support or augment the therapeutic effects of conventional medical therapy to relieve painful conditions.

The common painful conditions treated using acupuncture are musculoskeletal pain, joint pain, headache, and nerve pain. For certain painful muscular conditions, patients do respond very well to acupuncture as the only treatment without the need to take medications, which sometimes can cause side effects.

How often should you get acupuncture for chronic pain?

The frequency and length of each acupuncture treatment depend on the condition's nature, severity, and duration. For example, acute problems such as sprains usually require fewer sessions, whereas complex or chronic pain conditions require more treatment sessions.

A course of acupuncture therapy is between 6 to 10 treatments, with a rest period in between. Generally, each treatment is around 30-minute, one to two times a week.

How does acupuncture work, and how long does it take for it to provide relief to chronic pain?

Acupuncture involves the stimulation of anatomical locations (Acupoints) on the skin by a variety of techniques. These include acupuncture, electric acupuncture, and embed method like herb seeds, needles, etc. The most studied mechanism of acupoint stimulation employs skin penetration by thin needles, which are manipulated manually or by electrical stimulation.

Everyone experiences and responds to the effect of acupuncture differently, and it's quite difficult to predict the therapeutic responses. However, generally, patients who respond positively to the treatment will often see improvement after a few treatment sessions.

How long do the effects of acupuncture last?

The duration of pain relief from acupuncture varies according to the patient’s response. For acute conditions, patients often make a good recovery after a course of treatment, without the need for further treatment. For chronic pain conditions, the effects of acupuncture often translate to outcomes such as medication dosage reduction and improvement in pain and symptoms. The duration of such effects varies for different conditions.

How does it compare with using medications for chronic pain?

Acupuncture is often used as an adjunctive therapy to support or augment the therapeutic effects of conventional medical therapy rather than being the first-line therapy. Acupuncture has helped manage the symptoms of many patients who have suboptimal or non-response to medications. However, there is quite a vast difference in response to acupuncture treatment for individual patients.

Some patients may notice an immediate improvement, whereas others start to feel a change a couple of days after treatment. Some patients who initially thought they had no response may notice a delayed improvement about a week after treatment. Unfortunately, some patients do not benefit from acupuncture.

Can painkillers be taken after acupuncture if the pain persists after a few hours?

Patients are advised to continue to use their painkiller medications after receiving acupuncture treatment should they feel that their pain control is still suboptimal.

Are there any risks or negative side effects associated with acupuncture?

The risks of acupuncture treatment are often related to the technique and site of administering the acupuncture. Common side effects include soreness and minor bleeding or bruising where the needles were inserted. Skin infection is uncommon as single-use, disposable needles are now the practice standard. Rare complications include injury to the tissues/internal organs such as nerve irritation and lung or abdominal cavity puncturing.

In terms of patient consideration, who should not get acupuncture?

Acupuncture treatment should not be administered to people with a disturbance of blood coagulation and those who are on blood thinning medications because the chances of bleeding or bruising from the needles may be increased.

Patients with a cardiac pacemaker or suffering from unstable epilepsy will not be suitable for acupuncture technique that employs the use of electrical stimulation to stimulate the acupuncture through the needle.

For pregnant patients, some acupuncture points are thought to stimulate labor, which could result in premature delivery. Hence, it is important to let the practitioner know.

Acupuncture treatment should not be administered to body regions with ulcers, sores, or scars.

Contributed by

Dr. Wilson Tay
Pain Specialist and Anesthesiologist
Apicare Pain Clinic
Farrer Park Hospital