By Erin Alberda, LAc
One of the most common ailments I treat as an acupuncturist is neck pain. Some days the sheer volume of patients coming through my office with very similar complaints has my intakes sounding like a Dr. Seuss rhyme – does it hurt you when you move your head? Does it hurt your shoulders instead? All kidding aside, trying to manage any pain condition can be frustrating at best, and debilitating at worst. My job is to tease out the origin of the pain –taking into account both physical considerations, as well as social and environmental. While I may see multiple patients in a day with the same complaint, the root cause is uniquely individual.
In Chinese Medicine, we view pain as the result of an obstruction of energy. I liken this obstruction or blockage to a traffic jam on our body’s biochemical highways. Acupuncture is therefore a method of traffic control – if there is a traffic jam, acupuncture can be highly effective at getting the cars going again. Our first priority is always to get the cars moving, get the road open, and eliminate pain. This can typically happen within a few treatments. To sort out the bigger picture, we need to evaluate the patient as a whole.
We need to look at the “why” of the traffic jam – some freeways are just more travelled in the body than others, and in that case, acupuncture alone can be hugely beneficial to keep the “freeways” well maintained, and when things get busy, shunt cars off to other roadways. In some cases, the cars themselves need better directions on how to get to their destination, and again, acupuncture will work well, along with some lifestyle changes. Sometimes the roads are affected by external elements, like the weather, in which case acupuncture and especially modalities like cupping or guasha are used to shovel the snow and clear the path. In some cases, though, the cars don’t seem to ever have enough gas, and frequent breakdowns lead to traffic jams. In this case, no amount of traffic control or repairing the roads will help…the car itself needs maintenance. In these cases, I turn to other modalities like moxibustion and herbal medicine.
One of my favorite examples of how neck pain is uniquely approached from a TCM perspective comes from a patient who was a firefighter, and had “retired” to running a small organic farm. This patient had a lot of wear and tear on his back as a result of his career, combined with the effects of aging and transitioning into another physically demanding “hobby”. Rather than having chronic or daily pain, however, he would have periodic flares that would leave him with severe pain and restricted range of motion. In this case, not only did his”cars” and “freeways” need some overall maintenance (through acupuncture and moxibustion), this patient’s pain episodes seem to onset with exposure to the elements as he worked outdoors: adding cupping to his treatment led to complete relief of his symptoms. In addition, counseling the patient on how to manage his outdoorsy commitments during weather changes led to fewer pain episodes.
If you are experiencing pain of this kind, I invite you to be my next success story, and to make your quality of life that much better.