Traditional Chinese Medicine and Pain Relief: The TCM Approach


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Acupuncture points refer to specific body parts-image by Toronox

Acupuncture as an Anesthetic

Hospitals in China regularly use acupuncture, either in conjunction with, or in place of, chemical anesthetics. They offer acupuncture as an alternative for people who are allergic to anesthesia, or otherwise unable to tolerate Western chemical anesthetics.

TCM practitioners say that the advantages of acupuncture as an anesthetic include the following:

  • Acupuncture causes fewer side-effects than chemical anesthesia.
  • The patient remains alert during surgery, and is better able to cooperate with the doctor during the operation.
  • There is a lack of disturbance of the patient’s memory after surgery.
  • There is a rapid recovery of functional activities after the operation.

On the other hand, TCM practitioners do not consider acupuncture to be an adequate anesthetic procedure for children or senile patients, and agree that it is not able to replace every kind of chemical anesthetic. In some cases, a local chemical anesthetic is necessary.

Modern Research on TCM’s Pain Control

Over the years, there have been numerous  scientific studies of the ability of acupuncture to control pain. According to Andersson and Lundeberg, in an article published in 1995, the benefits of acupuncture in evoking pain relief have been widely accepted, and are in use in pain control clinics worldwide. In fact, the Mayo Clinic advocates the use of acupuncture for pain relief.

Pain in Western Medicine vs. TCM

Western medicine believes that we feel pain due to the transmission of impulses from the nervous system to the brain.

One Western medical theory is that pain impulses travel along particular neural pathways. Peilin (Doctor of Oriental Medicine)  suggests that the pathways defined as “channels” in TCM are the same as the neural pathways defined by Western medicine. Research such as the 1995 article, “Acupuncture- from Empiricism to Science: Functional Background to Acupuncture Effects in Pain and Disease” substantiates this suggestion.

Another theory of Western medicine proposes that pain impulses can be blocked from reaching the brain at various “gates” within the nervous system. Peilin suggests that acupuncture intervenes at the appropriate points along the nervous system to prevent pain impulses from reaching the brain.

A third theory of Western medicine is that endorphins are natural pain-relieving substances within the human body, similar to the opiates (such as morphine). TCM practitioners believe that acupuncture stimulates the production of these substances. Furthermore, in a 2006 study, researchers found that acupuncture increases the level of serotonin in the nervous system, which raises a person’s threshold of pain.

TCM Pain Relief: Moderation Spells Prevention

TCM believes that it is more effective to prevent pain than to treat it after it begins, and that acute pain can be treated and eliminated much more quickly than chronic pain. For these reasons, practitioners suggest that it is important to seek treatment before the pain becomes severe. In general, TCM proposes that moderation in one’s total life style – specifically diet, exercise, sexual activity, and work – is the best recipe for good health throughout the life span.


Andersson, S., Lundeberg, T. Acupuncture-from empiricism to science: functional background to acupuncture effects in pain and disease. (1995). Medical Hypotheses. Accessed August 15, 2013.

Yoshimoto K, Fukuda F, Hori M, Kato B, Kato H, Hattori H, Tokuda N, Kuriyama K, Yano T, Yasuhara M. Acupuncture stimulates the release of serotonin, but not dopamine, in the rat nucleus accumbens. (2006).

Mayo Clinic Staff. Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Accessed August 15, 2013.

Peilin, Sun, Ed. The Treatment of Pain with Chinese Herbs and Acupuncture. (2002)Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.

Tuttle, Karin. Alternative and Complementary Medicine. On the Risk, Journal of the Academy of Life Underwriting. Vol. 27, number 4, pp 52-56. Accessed August 15, 2013.

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