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Ask an expert - general - Mystery aches and pains
Q: My farther has had his leg amputated 4 years ago and still has very painful phantom pains, can this be treated with acupuncture?
A: Phantom limb pain can be a very distressing phenomenon.
There have been a number of studies over the years which describe the use of acupuncture in individual cases, and if you google 'acupuncture phantom limb pain' you will find examples such as:
We are also aware of a paper published in the Journal of another acupuncture association which cites the following papers about phantom limb sensation.
Bradbrook D (2004) Acupuncture in Medicine Acupuncture Treatment Of Phantom Limb Pain And Phantom Limb Sensation in Amputees. 22; 2; 93-97
Hecker H. -U et al (2008) Color Atlas of Acupuncture 2nd Ed. Thieme, Stuttgart
Hill A (1999) Journal of Pain and Symptom Management Phantom Limb Pain: A review of the Literature on Attributes and Potential Mechanisms. 17; 2; 125-142
Johnson M.I. et al (1992) Pain Clinic Treatment of Resistant Phantom Limb Pain by Acupuncture: A Case Report. 5; 2; 105-112
Liaw M.-Y et al (1994) American Journal of Acupuncture Therapeutic Trial of Acupuncutre in Phantom Limb Pain of Amputees. 22; 3; 205-213
Monga T.N et al (1981) Archives of Physical Medicine in Rehabilitation Acupuncture in Phantom Limb Pain. 62; 5; 229-2321
The mechanism by which the treatment works is not at all clear from a Western medical point of view. From a Chinese medicine perspective it is perhaps easier to make sense of the appearance of the pain from the fact that the channels which run through the affected area spread out across the body, and even in 'conventional' Chinese medicine treatment it is not unknown to treat a problem in the lower left limb by using points in the upper right limb. The fact that the opposite limb is missing would not necessarily render the treatment useless.
The best advice we can give, especially when there is so little case evidence to point to, is to visit a BAcC member local to your father for advice on his specific circumstances. There may be a number of initial soundings which he or she could make to determine whether treatment may be of benefit.
The problem with conditions like this is that there are case studies which offer encouragement, but nobody publishes the results of case studies where things don't work, so for the small number which have been successful there may be ten times as many where treatment was tried and failed. It is best not to over-excited by the fact that some treatments work. Everything works for someone, but that doesn't mean that somehing works for everyone.
Q: I am writing with a query regarding my husband. He had a vasectomy in August and unfortunately, due to complications during the procedure, has suffered a trapped nerve on one side which is still painful at certain times. He has been referred to a consultant and been told there is no corrective procedure for this and he would just have to make use of long term pain relief, but he does not want to take long term medication. We are wondering if acupuncture would be able to relieve the pain from this trapped nerve and, if so, what would be involved?
Treatment would involve either needles and moxibustion, the use of a burning Chinese herb, and your husband can rest assured that needles do not have to ber applied locally to achieve an effect, or no-one would ever seek help with haemorrhoids ever again. The majority of points used in early sessions lie on the lower arm and lower leg, with a number of more powerful ones on the trunk and back.
shows. Indeed, much of the early research into acupuncture in the West was focused on this area after seeing some of the film of operations in the East performed under acupuncture and demonstrations of dramatic reductions in pain that people appeared to experience from a few needles. Of course, the main western preoccupation was to make sense of this in terms of neurotransmitter chemicals or natural painkillers like endorphins and enkephalins, rather than understanding it as a reinstatement of the proper flow of energy, or 'qi' in an area, but we were grateful anyway to see acupuncture being taken more seriously.
A great deal depends on how your husband's nerve is trapped. If there is impingement of the nerve a great deal depends on whether there is post-operative inflammation in the surrounding tissue which treatment may be able to help to reduce, thus breaking the cycle of pain, or whether the operation has simply caused the nerve to be jammed between physical structures where change is less likely. There is no doubt that acupuncture treatment may well be able to achieve some pain relief, and the main issue is usually how much and how sustainable that change is.
Usually there is no way of predicting how someone will respond in circumstances like this, and most practitioners will probably say that the best way is to have a couple of sessions to allow them to assess the viability of treatment, based both on feedback from the patient and from signs and symptoms which they themselves interpret. In any event there should be some reaction within three to four sessions, and a responsible practitioner will draw a line in the sand then if the patient is not making progress, however pleasant the actual experience of treatment may be.
The best advice we can give is that you visit a BAcC member local to you and seek a face to face assessment of whether they think acupuncture treatment may be beneficial. There are a number of ways in which they cam make this assessment and we are confident that they will give you an honest view.
Q: My first visit for acupuncture was nearly 2 weeks ago. I wanted to try it for my hot flushes, itching skin(due to a medication I am on) and arthritis. Unfortunately that evening I realized I had a heavy ache in the whole length of my left arm. I can use the arm as usual but I am aware of the dull ache, at nightime it seems to trouble me so much more and I have to take painkillers or use ibroprufen gel.
On my 2nd visit 3 days ago the acupuncturist was obviously concerned that I was still suffering this ache, I did not have needles on that occasion in the arm, but she tried massage etc all to no avail. She said she had never heard of anybody having this ache for this long before.
I did have a fracture of the wrist on this arm before, but this was about 9 years ago; no pins or anything so she presumed it was nothing to do with this.
I would be glad if you could be of any help as this ache is now causing me sleepness nights, (it wakes me when the medication has worn off).
A: This is a most unusual outcome. There are a number of rare short term adverse effects associated with treatment, but most disappear after 24 to 48 hours. There are also a number of normal treatment effects, and a dull aching sensation where the needle has been inserted is relatively frequent, but this again disappears within minutes of treatment, although occasionally lasting a little longer.
The only thing we can think may have happened is that there has been a slight bruise created by the treatment adjacent to a nerve, and the impingement is causing the sensation you are experiencing. In any event we think that it would be best to visit your GP and ask for a neurological assessment to see whether there is a specific nerve which is being affected.
We also need to emphasise that all of our practitioners are fully insured so that if this problem continues and is a direct result of treatment you would be entitled to make a claim for any disturbance or distress this may have caused.
However, we hope that it proves to be a consequence of minor bruising within the underlying tissue, and in our experience where this kind of problem does occur it does resolve within a week or two, gradually diminishing in intensity and discomfort. We are sorry that you have had this happen, and hope that it does not deter you from having further treatment.
Q: I have persistent pain in my chest just under my left nipple. I have had heart scan, X Ray, endoscopy all to find everything is ok. Would acupuncture be worth a try?
A: When someone has had a battery of conventional medical tests to assess a pain they have, the first thing we say to them is that this should be reassuring - it has ruled out most, if not all, of the serious possibilities. We tend to 'inherit' a great many patients in your situation, and working in a different paradigm of medicine can sometimes offer new treatment possibilities.
Chinese medicine is based on an entirely different understanding of the way in which the body mind and spirit work as an interconnected system of energy called 'qi', a term which is virtually untranslatable. An understanding of the flow, rhythms and balance of this energy is integral to understanding the concept of disease in Chinese medicine, and the practitioner will be looking at excesses, deficiencies or blockages to try to establish what is causing the pain. This might lead to local treatment to clear a blockage, or could involve systemic treatment if the problem is the tip of a larger iceberg. Usually there is an element of both involved, with underlying patterns allowing local patterns to develop. A practitioner would probably ask you the same kinds of question you have already been asked - nature, frequency, onset, duration, etc etc - in order to refine their diagnosis.
The best advice we can give you is to visit a BAcC member local to you and seek a brief face to face assessment. This will enable someone to give you a much better idea of how treatable the problem is. Our experience is that these kinds of pains clear quickly with acupuncture treatment or not at all, and you should, if you decide to have treatment, set measurable outcomes and a set review point to avoid a sequence of treatment extending a long time without discernible improvement.
Q: I have had a 'mystery' pain in my left arm for some time now. I think this was caused when I was out walking with my wife, who was holding my hand or to be more precise by two or three fingers, when she stumbled and pulled down hard on my fingers to steady herself. I have been to the doctor who told me to take some Iboprufen (not my preferred cure!) and the pain is with me still. It hurts most when i lift something or grasp and lift.
A: It would certainly be worth seeking out a BAcC member local to you and asking their advice on what acupuncture treatment might be able to achieve. There are a number of musculo-skeletal problems for which acupuncture has been shown to be successful, notably in the case of chronic back pain, and from a Chinese medicine perspective the problems often involve blockage and stagnation in the energy or 'qi' which flows around the body, caused by strain or injury. The removal of the blockage, usually with needles but sometimes using heat in the form of a burning herb called moxa, enables the body to resume its normal functionm. Without seeing exactly where the problem lies, however, it is difficult to pass on a more informed judgement. Some conditions, like tennis elbow, are relatively amenable to treatment, and there is an increasing number of studies which show that treatment may be beneficial. Other muscle or tendon strains, which is what this sounds like, can be more intractable.
Although it may not please some of our members to read this (because many physios use acupuncture and are often felt to be 'poaching' on our territory) this is a case where we believe an assessment by a physiotherapist or osteopath may also be a very valuable route to pursue. It may not simply a matter of removing pain; there are issues to do with re-building normal function involved, and the advice of an expert in the body's musculature and movement about what to avoid and what to do to build up one's strength again may be very useful. Our members work closely with a great many other health professionals and it is a part of their role and duty of care to ensure that a patient gets the care most appropriate to their needs.