An article about blood circulation and pain relief.
“Highly oxygenated, highly nutritious blood coursing through the body is the key to good health.”
—Bob Doane, L.Ac
As noted by Dr. Tan’s top disciple, Bob Doane, the ancient Chinese doctor’s view of a healthy functioning body:
- Oxygen delivery to the tissues
- Healthy vascular system
- Healthy organ system, particularly the heart
- Nervous system
Proper blood circulation is the key to maintaining health, as well as healing illness, and pain relief. In fact, many experienced Chinese medical practitioners will point to “blood stasis” as the primary cause of disease and illness. This is especially true for chronic health conditions, where dysfunctions have accumulated over time.
When blood flow to a particular area of the body is obstructed, that area will be negatively impacted. It will also make it harder for that area to heal. As we age, vascular perfusion decreases, as well as our innate ability to heal. Children will fall approximately 2000 times from birth until age three, but are able to heal quite quickly. An elderly person may never heal from one fall.
Why is blood flow so important?
Our blood contains all that we need to heal:
- Analgesics – the body’s naturally produced painkillers.
- Nutrients from digestion of food.
- Immune cells, and more.
Acupuncture treatments are designed to vasodilate, and naturally promote proper blood circulation. To put it simply, when we achieve adequate blood flow, the essential nutrients, hormones, endorphins, and oxygen, can elicit our natural healing processes. This is how the body is able to heal itself, and we have pain relief.
How does acupuncture work?
“The peripheral nervous system can be stimulated by acupuncture to increase blood flow to targeted areas in the body.”
—Bob Doane, L.Ac
If one of acupuncture’s main roles is to restore blood flow to areas of the body that need it. The question then remains: how does it work? And how does it work for pain?
By inserting acupuncture needles into specific sites on the body (acupuncture points), the needles trigger a response from the nervous system. In Chinese, acupuncture points are called jie, which means node. These nodes are gatherings of nerves, venules and arterioles. They are spaced out above the main distribution vessels of the body. By stimulating these concentrated areas with an acupuncture needle, signals are sent through the peripheral nervous system, to the brain.
How does pain work?
The feeling of pain is reported to the brain via sensory nerves, or nociceptors. These sensory nerves register the feeling of the pain.
There are A Delta fiber sensory nerves that register as sharp, burning pain, and C fiber nerves that register as dull, throbbing pain.
The location of the pain is reported to the brain via proprioceptive nerves. These nerves tell the brain where the pain is located. When a physical injury occurs, the body is designed to heal itself in two stages.
The first stage involves protecting the injured area, as well as the rest of the body, through the following mechanisms:
- The nerves send pain signals to alert you that there is a problem in that area.
- The brain creates a guarding reflex in the muscles around that area, reduces motility and lessens movement which reduces the risk of re-injury. This is bruising, inflammation, soreness, and limited range of motion.
- The brain restricts blood flow to the area. If the cause of pain is due to an infection, or poison (like an animal bite), the brain sends signals to the injured area to reduce the spread of the “poison” to the vital organs. Swelling and inflammation is our natural protection.
The second stage in injury healing involves pain relief and increased range of motion:
- The brain releases endorphins and enkephalins to reduce the pain in the healing area.
- The brain relaxes the guarding reflex, increasing range of motion and muscle function.
- The brain dilates the blood vessels, allowing blood flow back to the healing area.
The cause of chronic pain
Our healing mechanisms are excellent, except when it doesn’t work. Chronic pain whether ongoing, or occasional flare-ups, occurs when stage two of the healing process fails to respond normally. Failure to reduce pain is often due to weakness in the proprioceptive nerve signals to the brain. When the proprioceptive signals are too weak, the brain doesn’t know where the pain is. On an subjective level, this is when you can’t pinpoint the exact location of the pain, but you know it’s in a general area.
When the brain can’t pinpoint the exact location of the pain, it can’t execute all of the steps of stage two healing, which leaves you with ongoing, chronic pain.
How acupuncture restores our natural healing power
Most of the acupuncture points used for healing pain are located on the arms and legs. The acupuncture points, or nerve nodes, on the arms and legs are part of the peripheral nervous system.
When an acupuncture needle stimulates a nerve node, this re-boots the proprioceptive nerve pathway. The nerve reaction created by the acupuncture needles jumpstarts the neural signal threshold and stimulates the brain to release endorphins and enkephalin painkillers, as well as restore blood circulation and range of motion to the painful areas.
After a period of time, anywhere between a few hours to a few days after acupuncture, the proprioceptive signal gets weak again. Acupuncture can be used over a period of time to re-jumpstart the proprioceptive nerve pathway, helping the brain to again activate the sequence of physiological reactions that heal the painful area.
Why a sequence of treatments is needed
Acupuncture treatment plans are similar to physical therapy treatment plans. A patient will start by coming for treatment 1-2 times per week, and gradually reduce treatment frequency until the improvements have stabilized. While physical therapy will focus on retraining the muscles through stretching, strengthening, and more, acupuncture is essentially a physical therapy for the nervous system.
Acupuncture is delivered on an ongoing basis, helping to normalize the proprioceptive nerve pathways, until the brain and body remembers, and permanently re-establishes the proper function of these pathways. This results in the sustained experience of reduced or eliminated pain, increases range of motion, and blood flow to the injured area.
In summary, it’s all about blood flow
Coming back full circle to the importance of blood flow to health, we can see how acupuncture works to cure a painful body area in a deep and thorough way.
By jumping the proprioceptive nerve signals, the brain releases painkillers into the bloodstream. When the brain dilates the blood vessels to the damaged area, the painkillers, along with nutrients, oxygen, and other vital substances can suffuse the area, providing their healing benefits and functions.
With increased blood circulation to the area happening on a consistent basis as a result of the acupuncture, patients can actually experience a fundamental and long-lasting healing of pain issues. Issues that sometimes weren’t able to be fully healed by other modalities. This is because our treatment plans are divided into relief and stabilization phases.
The first set of acupuncture treatments are meant to provide pain relief, but we have to treat beyond relief to get that relief to hold.
We continue to treat until we stabilize at a state of pain relief—but that’s not all. We are aiming for a state of overall health. Acupuncture has the ability to not only take away the pain, but also to balance the functioning of the central nervous system, therefore assisting with digestive, circulatory, and mental/emotional issues. I will discuss those functions in other articles.
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