Whether it’s due to arthritis, headache, an injury or some other agonizing condition, chronic pain is endemic in the US. A whopping 116 million Americans live with this dark cloud—more people than heart disease, cancer and diabetes combined.  

Treatment for chronic pain runs the gamut from physical therapy and chiropractic care to powerful—often dangerous—painkillers and even surgery. But one approach that can be highly effective isn’t even on the radar of most Americans: Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). 

How TCM Works

TCM treatments focus on underlyingimbalances and blockages that lead to pain. According to TCM principles, pain is caused by stagnationin yin (substance, or blood) and yang (movement, or qi, the body’s vital energy).

The natural therapies of TCM treat pain by unblocking qi stagnation, restoring blood flow and enhancing qi. A TCM diagnosis is determined in many ways, including the location of the pain…pulse diagnosis…and tongue diagnosis. The location indicates what acupuncture channel(s) the pain is affecting. The pulse and tongue diagnoses help to reveal the body’s internal state of qi. These clues help the practitioner form a treatment plan.

Top TCM Therapies

TCM offers a variety of therapies. Among the most effective…

• Acupuncture.TCM describes qi as flowing through 20 channels or meridians in the body, most of which are matched with organ systems, such as the kidneys, liver, lungs, spleen and stomach. The meridians are covered by about 400 acupoints, the energy points that are targeted by acupuncture. To resolve stagnation and move qi, an acupuncturist inserts hair-thin, disposable needles at the appropriate acupoints chosen as part of the patient evaluation and diagnosis. 

Don’t expect immediate results from acupuncture—it is a healing therapy that takes consistent treatment to resolve chronic pain conditions in most instances. An average course of treatment ranges from 12 to 22 sessions, depending on the severity of the chronic condition. 

Also, let your acupuncturist know if there’s been a change in the intensity and/or frequency of your pain. These valuable clues can indicate that the treatment is working, even if the pain is not yet entirely ­eliminated. 

Compelling research:When scientists reviewed the evidence on acupuncture for chronic pain, this treatment was found to be an “effective, safe and cost-effective” solution for relieving many types of chronic pain, including low back, neck, shoulder, knee and headache, according to a research review published in Current Opinion in ­Anaesthesiology

Look for a licensed acupuncturist (LAc) who is board-certified through the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, NCCAOM.org—a process that requires an average of approximately 2,000 hours of training specifically in Oriental medicine. 

• Emotional therapy. In TCM theory, emotions such as chronic anger—which is very common in our society—create stagnation in the liver, which controls the flow of blood and qi throughout the body. 

Liver qi stagnation can cause chronic joint pain, headaches, muscle spasms, and generalized aches and pains. Many other chronic negative emotions—such as chronic worry or depression—also can play a role in chronic pain.

Self-care option: In addition to acupuncture, you can use herbs such as yellow dock root, bupleurum root or milk thistle seed—all of which soothe the liver and are available individually online. Bupleurum, however, is more widely found in a combination formula such as Xiao Yao Wan, also called “Free and Easy Wanderer,” which is available online as well. Follow the dosage recommendation on the label. 

Important: Be sure to consult your doctor before taking any herbal formula—especially if you have a chronic medical condition or take medication.