Chronic Pain and the Brain

As Acupuncturists, we treat a lot of people with pain, and pain is one of the most common reason folks come to see us. Some of it is from injury (acute), some of it comes and goes but never fully goes away, or just always stays (chronic or persistent pain). What we know about pain is that all types of pain are real, and that they are all manufactured in the brain. (This does NOT mean it’s all in your head!) While we don’t always know ‘WHY’ the pain is there, it’s understood that the brain and nervous system are in charge of sending out pain signals to the body, based on various complex mechanisms.

image Creedi Zhong via Unsplash

Simply speaking, if someone sprains their ankle (this is considered ‘acute pain’), the affected tissues send a signal to the brain letting it know it’s injured, so we stay off of it and don’t damage it further. As the ankle heals, that ‘danger’ signal decreases, until it’s gone. With chronic pain, the brain and nervous system are still putting out loud signals that there is danger, sometimes for years, but there is not always actual tissue damage associated or a reason for that pain signal anymore.

The nervous system is in charge of whether we feel pain, regardless of what’s happening with the body structures. Stress that surrounds an injury (financial burden, lost work hours, traumatic situation that caused the injury, anxiety about pain, for example) can keep the nervous system in alert mode, sending pain signals to try to keep the body safe from further harm.

If you have chronic pain, you might know first-hand that physicians aren’t really sure what to do about it. Injured tissues heal over time and then the pain ‘should’ have stopped. Many people with chronic pain find that medications either don’t help at all or help very little, and also that medications’ effectiveness reduces over time. Sometimes medications that calm the mood are given to people for chronic pain, because the nervous system is hyper-sensitive and sending pain signals when it needn’t be.

With chronic pain, all we really need to know in order to treat you in our clinic is where it hurts, and how much. We don’t need to know exactly WHY the pain is there, or even a detailed history. Acupuncture calms the nervous system which encourages the brain to turn down the pain signals. It can take time to see the effects of treatment for chronic pain, and patients often first experience a change in their relationship to the pain. Positive benefits of treatments like better sleep, mood, digestion, and energy, can often be noticed before actual pain reduction. These are usually welcome ‘side effects’, as chronic pain often occurs in conjunction with depression, insomnia, stress, and fatigue, and these issues can worsen pain and cause a vicious cycle.

When you bring your pain into our clinic, we will ask you a few questions about where it is and how severe it is, then we will give you a recommended treatment plan. Based on how severe the pain range is, we might suggest coming in for treatment 2 times per week for 8 weeks, and then re-evaluate how things are feeling. Whether you are new to our clinic or an established patient, we can always give you a new treatment plan for pain. Book your appointment here— > APPOINTMENTS

Image by GP Access + Hunter Integrated Pain Service. Video “Understanding Pain in less than five Minutes” at

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