Acupuncture is a treatment modality that has been in practice for several thousand years. The reason it has stood the test of time? It works incredibly well. Traditional Chinese acupuncture not only targets the painful joint or tissue, but it also works to address the underlying imbalances causing the pain in the first place.
We’ve come a long way since the early days of acupuncture, and we now have other tools at our disposal, although the basis of treatment is the same. New treatment options like electrosimulation, also known as electro-acupuncture, can help to amplify the pain relieving effects of acupuncture, as well as rehabilitating tight muscles, or strengthening and retraining weak ones. Electro-acupuncture has been compared to common pain medications for knee osteoarthritis, including Ibuprofen, Celebrex, and Glucosamine Sulfate, and was found to be more effective at reducing pain intensity and restoring physical function than all three medications(1).
In the case of knee pain, whether due to recent injury, chronic long standing injury, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, or just pain on movement in general, all of these can be improved by acupuncture treatments. Acupuncture decreases inflammation/swelling, allows the muscles to relax, and also stimulates the release of the body’s natural painkillers: endorphins, and serotonin, resulting in impactful pain relief, while also avoiding the common gastrointestinal side effects of over-the-counter pain medications(2). Typical treatment time is dependant on how long you’ve had the pain, the factor causing the pain, and the severity of the pain. Recent onset or mild to moderate pain can often significantly improve with 4-6 treatments, however long-standing or arthritic pain can take a minimum of 6-8 treatments for sustained relief of pain and inflammation. Acupuncture is also a great add-on therapy for post-knee surgery recovery, resulting in faster recovery time, improved range of motion, and relief of post-surgical swelling and inflammation.
But how does it work? A modern definition: acupuncture helps to increase much needed healthy blood flow to areas of pain or injury, bringing with it all the cells and building blocks your body needs to repair itself naturally(2). If you’ve ever sliced your finger while chopping something in the kitchen, you know that eventually that cut will close and heal on its own. The body is incredible at self-repairing, but sometimes it just needs a little extra support. There is new research showing that acupuncture decreases substance P, one of the naturally-occurring substances in the body that allows us to feel pain, and increases the release of chemical messengers that promotes muscle relaxation(3). As well, studies have shown that acupuncture also induces nerve signalling and has a positive, relaxation effect on the fascial network, the sheath of dense connective tissue that covers the muscle tissue of the body(3), another possible modern explanation as to how it works.
A more traditional definition of acupuncture involves the Qi, or the energy source of the body. If the Qi can not flow freely through the organs, that is when we start to see imbalance, which can manifest as anything from pain, to insomnia, to headaches, or digestive issues, depending on where the energy “blockage” is. Acupuncture targets the barriers that may be preventing Qi from moving effortlessly through all of the organs of the body; things like stress, poor diet, or overexertion, all affect energy flow, and in our modern world, are some of the most common triggers that begin the cascade of imbalance.
Does it hurt? Acupuncture should not be painful, in fact, most people find it very relaxing, and it’s not uncommon for people to actually fall asleep during a treatment. Acupuncture needles are very, very thin; significantly smaller than any other type of needle you may be used to from immunizations, flu shots, or blood draws. Occasionally, there can be a very small “pinch” sensation, lasting 5-10 seconds or less just as the needle makes contact with the outer layers of the skin. Typically this is mostly in areas where there is a higher concentration of small, peripheral nerve endings, such as the hands, feet, or the face. Treatments for pain management typically last anywhere from 15-30 minutes.
How do I know if acupuncture is right for me? Ask! Find yourself a licensed Naturopathic Doctor (ND) or a license Acupuncturist, or Acupuncture Provider, who can assess your knee pain, and also take into consideration any other health concerns, medications, or medical conditions you may have, so they can ensure acupuncture is right for you! If you have a pacemaker, electro-acupuncture may not be for you. If you are pregnant, there are a select few acupuncture points to avoid, but otherwise acupuncture during pregnancy is perfectly safe. Always notify your ND or acupuncturist if you have a bleeding or coagulation disorder, or if you are immunocompromised before starting acupuncture.
- Chen N, Wang J, Mucelli A, Zhang X, Wang C. “Electro-Acupuncture is Beneficial For Knee Osteoarthritis: The Evidence from Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials”. The American Journal of Chinese Medicine. Vol. 45, No. 5, 1-21. 2017.
- Wilkinson J, Faleiro R. “Acupuncture in Pain Management”. Continuing Eduction in Anaesthesia, Critica Care & Pain: British Journal of Anaesthesia. Vol. 7. No. 4. 135-138. 2007
- Cheng KJ. “Neurobiological Mechanisms of Acupuncture for Some Common Illnesses: A Clinician’s Perspective”. J Acupunct Meridian Stud. 7(3):105-114. 2014.