Pain is the body’s response to unpleasant sensory stimuli that may be associated with actual or potential tissue damage, alerting us to problems in the body that may need our attention. Pain can be characterized mainly by two features – its intensity, and its site of occurrence. Though intensity is usually correlated with the severity of the problem, the location of pain occurrence may not be the best indicator of the underlying issue. An example of this is leg pain that results from a herniated spinal disc in the back – the pain occurs far from the underlying cause of pressure to the nerve that sends pain signals down the leg.
Currently, the most frequently used pain relief methods usually include either over-the-counter or prescription strength medications such as acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
How We Treat Pain
Pain occurs when an injury or misuse of a body part causes inflammation so that the our pain perception sensory neurons transmit a signal that is higher than the normal pain threshold. This pain threshold is what our bodies can normally handle in daily life (e.g. lifting a heavy box will put pressure on our muscles, but pain occurs only when we have overused the muscles), and largely depends on factors unique to the individual, such as age, gender, genetics, etc.
Western medical therapies to combat chronic pain uses drug therapy to raise that threshold, but because the drugs are not customize to each person’s needs specifically, often they will adjust the threshold to be too high, so that the individual no longer feels pain caused by subsequent injury or misuse. When the subsequent injury accumulates to a point that exceeds the raised pain threshold from drug therapies, the patient will feel pain again. The response for this is often to increase drug dosage. This undesirable cycle then continues, without much improvement to the underlying condition and oftentimes results in many side effects due to the continued increased dosage of painkillers.
Eastern medicine, especially acupuncture, aims to restore the balance within the body. Specifically in the case of pain management, it is the stimulation of pressure points that sends the brain signals to adjust the pain threshold for the individual to the point that the current pain is relieved, but any subsequent injury or misuse would still be felt. This allows the body to find a balance between pain and comfort, usage and healing, so that the body can activate its own mechanisms to gradually repair the damage that underlies the painful sensations. Since this adjustment caters to the individual’s unique body composition, it avoids the side effects of high painkiller dosages and regulates pain through a more innate mechanism.