Interrupting the pain cycle

When it comes to pain, it’s all in our heads. 

 Actually, pain is experienced by way of our brains, via a cycle described in detail below. Pain can be acute, resolved quickly, or chronic, variously defined as lasting longer than 3 to 6 months. Acupuncture is particularly helpful in interrupting the pain cycle, especially for chronic pain. Herbs and bodywork are useful as well, depending on the condition.

 The pain cycle

Pain receptors, called nociceptors, are found in any area of the body that can feel pain. These sensory receptors respond to any dangerous stimulus, to warn us of potential injury or illness. A perfect example is if you stick your finger into a flame. The nociceptors in the skin of your finger are activated when the stimulus reaches a certain threshold and transmit a warning signal to the brain. The brain then sends a pain signal, causing you to pull your finger back out of the flame. 

 Communication between your finger and your brain is complicated by chemical mediators, which increase the sensitivity of the nociceptors, and hormones, which increase the sensation of pain and cause inflammation. To use the finger/flame example, the more inflammation there is in the body, the more painful that flame will feel. In other words, your state of health, including your stress levels, may contribute to prolonged or exaggerated pain.

 In cases of chronic pain, nociceptors become sensitized and overreact to a normal stimulus. This is the case when the original source of the pain is completely healed, but the person still experiences great pain or when the experience of pain exceeds the extent of the injury. In essence, the brain gets stuck in a rut and continues to send pain signals unnecessarily.

 In Chinese medicine, it is believed that pain is caused by the stagnation of Qi and blood. To treat the pain, we must move Qi and blood and break up stagnation. If the condition is particularly chronic, it is likely complicated by inherent deficiency in the body. Manual therapies like acupuncture and bodywork physically break up stagnation in the body, and allow it to heal. Herbs that move Qi and blood help to support this healing process. In the cases complicated by deficiency, herbs are particularly useful, to tonify and nourish the system and speed up the healing.


Treating chronic pain can be challenging. I like to use a combination of treatments, depending on the situation. First, I would encourage you to clean up your diet, avoiding inflammatory foods (sugar, fast and processed foods, vegetable oils, refined grains, additives, excess dairy, commercially produced meats, and alcohol) and increase consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, olive oil, nuts, seeds, and wild-caught fish.

Acupuncture is particularly effective in treating chronic pain. One of its mechanisms is to interrupt the habituated pain signal to and from the brain. By distracting the brain with the insertion of an acupuncture needle or two, the brain can reset itself, allowing the body to return to a state of homeostasis. This treatment may need to be repeated several times, to retrain the brain permanently.

In cases of chronic degenerative conditions, such as osteoarthritis in joints, acupuncture is useful to manage the pain and slow down the degenerative process. It decreases sensitivity, moderates inflammation, and calms the nervous system. Treatment intervals vary greatly in these cases, depending on the person and the severity of their condition.

Bodywork is particularly useful for chronic pain conditions involving tight muscles and fascia. Bodywork helps to increase circulation and flush out contracted tissues. If pain is caused by active trigger points, bodywork is very effective. The March/April 2012 Red Clover Clinic newsletter discussed treating myofascial pain (pain in the muscles and connective tissues). 

Finally, herbal medicines help heal pain in particular structures in the body, such as the joints, the spine, the nerves, and spastic muscles. Other herbs work to increase circulation and decrease inflammation. 

If you have concerns with chronic pain, contact me at Red Clover Clinic.