Acupuncture for Pain Management

When Carleen Implicito’s doctor told her that she had stress-related palpitations, she struggled to understand how or why this was happening to her.

“But I don’t have any stress,” the young woman told her doctor upon hearing the news.

Looking back now, she recognizes just how much stress she was unconsciously under during that time.

“For me, it was like any other form of addiction. The first thing I had to do was admit I had a problem and the next step was doing something about it,” Implicito said.

Doing something about her stress levels required honest, self-reflection and a dogged investigation into methods that might bring her peace of mind.

“I had a very hard time keeping myself calm and my mind clear—I still do. But when I finally found acupuncture, it was a life changing experience for me,” Implicito said.

Receiving acupuncture treatment was such a defining experience for Implicito, that she decided to return to school and become an acupuncturist herself. Having already earned her undergraduate degree in Western Medicine and Marketing, the thought of becoming an acupuncturist was a major divergence from Implicito’s initial plan.

In December of 2016, she joined the Graf Center for Integrative Medicine at Englewood Health. At the Graf Center, she brings her acupuncture expertise to a team that consists of yoga instructors, meditation coaches, massage therapists and Reiki practitioners.  

“The concept of acupuncture revolves around the opposing forces of yin and yang. When you have equal levels of yin and yang, your body is balanced; when those levels become imbalanced you can develop a blockage and become sick or ill. In acupuncture treatment, we place small needles in specific locations, or “acupoints,” in order to remove the blockage and allow for the Qi [pronounced “chee”] to flow freely,” Implicito said.

In Western medicine, the flow of Qi can be best compared to blood circulation. Much like blood, Qi is a vital energy that flows through the body, bringing health and life to every limb, organ and area of tissue. Qi flows through pathways called “meridians.” When a meridian pathway becomes clogged, hair-thin needles applied along the pathway work to open up space and allow for the Qi to flow freely once again.

In her work at the Graf Center, Implicito treats patients with chronic migraines, menstrual pain, neck and back pain and patients who have developed pain as a result of cancer treatment.

“When people come to see me, one of the first questions they ask is, ‘how quickly can you fix my pain?’ The answer to that question always depends on how long you’ve been in pain. If this is a relatively new development in your body it will be easier to open up those pathways and ease the pain. But, for example, if you’ve had back pain for many years, it may take multiple acupuncture sessions in order to feel the results,” Implicito said.

Perhaps the most common concern first-timers have about acupuncture treatment is whether or not the needles will hurt. To this, Implicito responds in a calm, assured tone that I imagine puts her clients effortlessly at ease, with: “the needles are hair-thin. Sometimes in the interest of precision, we will use a plastic tube around the needle that only presses against the skin during insertion. Most patients feel that tube more acutely than they feel the needle piercing their skin. The needles are nothing like the ones used to draw blood, which is what most patients imagine.”

Kenneth Park, M.D., is a specialist in pain medicine at Englewood Health. Over the years, Dr. Park has referred many patients with chronic pain to the Graf Center to receive acupuncture treatment. While Dr. Park operates on the clinical side of the health industry, he sees the value in alternative methods to treat pain.

“There have been studies that suggest acupuncture releases endorphins—the chemical that helps alleviate pain. As the needles pierce the muscle tissue, they also relax muscle tension which is a cause of pain for many people. There may not be one clear reason why acupuncture helps with pain, but there are multiple mechanisms of action that make this treatment beneficial to patients,” Dr. Park said.

When I spoke to Dr. Park, he had just left an appointment with a patient who had shingles and uterine cancer and had recently found a bit of relief in their acupuncture sessions. What came into focus during our conversation, is that acupuncture is not a magic trick, a quick fix, or a treatment that will eliminate all of your pain; rather, it is a valuable treatment option that is worth including within a larger, pain management plan.

“Pain isn’t just one thing—it’s multi-dimensional. So, it can’t always be treated with cortisone injections or medications alone. The best way to manage pain is by pursuing it on multiple fronts. Whether that’s a regimen of medication, meditation, acupuncture and physical therapy—what we know for sure is that patients who pursue pain relief in multiple ways have the best outcomes,” Dr. Park said

Pain is physical, emotional and psychological. In order to deal with pain properly, we have to address each aspect of pain and, like Implicito once did, we have to search for the methods that will bring some peace to each aspect of our pain. Acupuncture is just one option that is worth investigating.