In the treatment of pain, the primary difference between Traditional Chinese Medicine and western medicine is that TCM methods such as acupuncture and herbal treatments have virtually no side effects. This is because acupuncture works in an entirely different manner. For example the NSAIDs commonly used to relieve pain provide short-term relief by blocking the production of pain-creating substances called prostaglandins. But in addition to creating pain, prostaglandins are also vasodilators, which help enhance circulation. Therefore inhibiting their production has the harmful side effect of decreasing blood supply to the muscles and joints, which ultimately slows the recovery process.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) creates an entirely opposite effect. Acupuncture, tui na and herbal applications work to stimulate the central nervous system, which in turn releases chemicals into the muscles, spinal cord and brain. These chemicals either alter the perception of pain or release other chemicals that influence the body's self-regulating systems. These biochemical changes support the body's natural healing abilities, improve circulation, and promote physical and emotional well-being. When circulation in the tissue improves, muscle relaxation occurs and pain is reduced. In some cases, improved circulation may cause the pain to increase, but this is followed by accelerated repair of the tissue. Proper circulation is important not only for the blood to nourish the tissue, but also for eliminating muscle fatigue and pain-causing substances such as lactic acid.
The "Gate Control" theory of pain asserts that stimulus, such as acupuncture, that activates nerves that do not transmit pain can block signals from pain fibers and can inhibit a person's perception of pain. Think of it as two people speaking to you at the same time. If that happens, then you cannot focus on just one person. So, the words spoken to you become unclear. With regular acupuncture treatments, the brain can be trained to control the types of pain and degrees of pain that are perceived. In other words, using acupuncture, the brain can be taught to turn off types of pain that are not useful.
In 1997, the National Institutes of Health (U.S.) officially recognized acupuncture as an effective treatment for pain. According to the 1997 NIH panel, clinical studies showed that acupuncture therapy is helpful in treating many types of chronic pain, including headaches, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia, myofascial pain, osteoarthritis, neck pain, low back pain and carpal tunnel syndrome. Recent studies also suggest that topical herbal compounds like those used in Traditional Chinese Medicine are very effective for reducing chronic pain.