As human beings, maybe we should be grateful that we have more sensitivity to pain than other species, since it is the small price we have to pay for our ability to experience a much greater range of physical sensations and emotions than the animal world.
Nevertheless, very few of us enjoy extreme discomfort, so throughout history there has been a constant quest for a magic cure to alleviate pain, as well as numerous attempts to explain the causes of our suffering.
In the early days, due to our deep religious beliefs, pain and illnesses were often interpreted as the consequences of displeasing the gods, or demons. In medieval Europe, victims of the bubonic plague were told that their only way to survive was by confessing to their terrible sins.
In those days, the methods used to ease suffering were often worse than the pain itself, as illustrated by a medieval technique commonly used for treating battle injuries - cauterising the wound by applying a red-hot iron directly over the site of the injury.
Nowadays, the Western medical approach to the treatment of pain (neuralgia) is to use chemical painkillers. These work in two ways - either by stopping the pain transmission by neutralising the pain receptors at the site of the injury (eg Panadeine or paracetamol) or, in the most serious cases, where opiate or narcotic drugs like morphine or pethidine stop the pain transmission through the spinal cord to the brain.
Unfortunately, while opiate painkillers can be very effective, they often result in intolerance, physical dependency and serious side effects in the patient.
In the case of migraines, which are caused by the dilation of blood vessels of the brain, the common prescription drugs have a constricting effect on these arteries.
The Oriental medicinal approach is markedly different. In Traditional Chinese Medicine theory, the blood, or Qi (energy) travels through channels or pathways. These are distributed all over the body including in the organs and muscles. It is considered that pain arises when the flow of these vital substances is impaired. The resulting treatment, whether acupuncture or Chinese herbal medicine, is aimed at moving the blood or the Qi in the affected meridians to relieve that stagnation.
In contrast to Western medicine’s painkillers, the treatment varies according to the location of the dysfunction and the channels, which are affected. For example, in the case of headaches, frontal headache will be treated using the large intestine meridian, which flows from the thumb to the front of the head. An occipital headache at the back of the neck, on the other hand, will be treated by using the gallbladder meridian, which travels from the side of the head to the back of the neck.
It has also long been acknowledged that our perception of pain is greatly affected by our emotions, so that our suffering will be perceived as more acute whenever we are stressed, tired, or depressed.
In the case of chronic pain, symptoms of depression can often be the result of the constant discomfort suffered by the patient. This leads us to a common vicious cycle, where the pain will be felt more sharply if the patient is depressed. Pain experienced over a long time will also result in depression, making the problem worse and the patient more depressed.
In the case of chronic pain, symptoms of depression can often be the result of the constant discomfort suffered by the patient.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, different organs are associated with different emotions, and symptoms of depression are often correlated with an imbalance in the liver function. Any long-term bout of depression will have an effect on the liver meridian and the digestive system, resulting in symptoms such as diarrhoea or constipation, poor appetite, indigestion and irritability. Since the liver energy pathway travels to the top of the head, many liver acupuncture points have an effect on the brain. They are selected for treating not only many forms of pain, but also their digestive and emotional manifestations.
In some cases, chronic pain is the manifestation of a terminal illness. The best treatment approach for the patient can often be to combine several modalities. Practising meditation and breathing exercises can bring serenity to accept the ultimate outcome, while the pain is alleviated by acupuncture treatments. When working in collaboration with the Western medical team, the prescribed medications dosage can be significantly reduced, and the chemical side effects of the prescribed drugs greatly diminished.
Maturity is often described as the ability to accept our own limitations, and that applies to both medical approaches as well. I am convinced that the best treatment outcomes will be achieved by combining the complementary strengths of Oriental and Western medicine systems, and I sincerely believe that it is a concept our community is now ready to embrace.
Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com