Pain is the number one reason patients come to see me. As an idealistic student, I thought acupuncture could treat every kind of pain. I still think it is miraculous medicine. But the reality in the clinic is that I need to understand clearly what I can and cannot treat. In order to know what you can do, you must also know your limitations.
This is a matter not of categorizing symptoms, but rather of categorizing the causes.
What’s the Cause?
The basic question: is this due to emotional stress, internal imbalance, or structural damage? It helps to have an MRI and/or an X-ray at this point.
Pain I Can Treat
I find that the most common orthopedic issues that may show up as sciatica, shoulder, elbow and wrist pain, knee and hip pain, heel and foot pain, are very easy to treat using trigger point release. For athletes, dancers, etc., this is a quick fix.
Pain with an emotional or energetic cause usually shows up with an array of other symptoms including insomnia, headaches, and anxiety. The magic here is that by treating the root cause, this long list of symptoms will all begin to resolve together. I do not need to go after each one individually.
Over time, I may find that a patient needs to be addressed from multiple angles. Someone may have trigger points in their muscles, for example (a very physical issue) but also have underlying emotional needs that we must address.
Pain I Cannot Treat
Significant pain from a “bone-on-bone” joint condition, a tear, or major issue with bone structure all require surgery and/or the intervention of an orthopedist or physical therapist. This may be seen in an active athlete, an older patient, or someone whose profession requires repetitive movements.
An MRI (for soft tissue) or X-ray (for bone placement and condition) will show if these conditions are present. This is why I urge patients to have imaging done first if possible.
Pain that comes from a food allergy or intolerance is something else I cannot treat, because the person ultimately needs to stop eating the irritant food.
I am also not the go-to provider for an acute organ issue, such as a gallbladder attack or acute infection in the stomach or lungs, etc. Usually a person will go to the doctor or hospital as a first choice when these types of pain arise, because there are other severe symptoms that indicate an urgent issue.
The maybe is pain in the presence of bulging or herniated discs, or arthritisor bursitis of the joints.
Why the question? Because sometimes these disc or joint issues are causing the pain, and sometimes they are not.
The fact is that as we get older, these joint and vertebrae conditions are common, but don’t necessarily cause pain. We get the MRI because of the pain, and then we see these conditions. It’s easy to conclude that they are the cause of the pain, but many experts will report that there is no absolute one-to-one correlation between disc issues, arthritis or bursitis, and pain.
In these cases, I will be looking for every kind of mind and body clue to orient me to the cause. Some exploration may be required, and it is important for me to learn more about the person and gain their trust because we may need to do some emotional deep-diving.