The link between trauma and chronic pain– and how acupuncture treats both!

In my first year of practice, I began to notice a trend in my patients. They would come to my office with chronic pain as their main focus but as we began talking, I would learn about the challenges they faced in childhood, a recent loss of a family member, or a motor vehicle accident they experienced in their teens. It became clear to me that these underlying traumas were closely linked to their physical experiences of pain. What their primary doctors were unable to test for: the lasting emotional effects of trauma– seems to be the key.

It is well-documented that there is a link between chronic pain and trauma: when stress or fear activates our fight or flight response this can lead to toxic stress which changes the neural connections between our brain and body (1). We know that most people with PTSD are also diagnosed with chronic pain, but you don’t need to be diagnosed or even know the exact traumatic event for this connection to be present (2). Continued stress from work, life, or family situations can play a role in our physiology even if we did not experience a “trauma.”

Acupuncture has many approaches to both pain and trauma and the best part is that an acupuncture treatment can address both at the same time. The research backs it up: acupuncture treatment is highly effective for low back pain, neck pain, osteoarthritis, chronic headaches, fibromyalgia and more (3). And studies have shown its effectiveness for PTSD and stress (so effective it is used widely for veterans) (4, 5). Both chronic pain and emotional trauma are processed through our body’s autonomic nervous system– the same part of the nervous system that acupuncture affects most powerfully(6, 7). 

I practice a style of acupuncture that directly addresses emotions and trauma that might be stuck in the nervous system and have seen pain melt away in my patients after only a few sessions. Other styles of acupuncture may address the pain first, but can also reset the nervous system back to a resting state which can greatly improve the body’s stress response. It is certainly worth pursuing if you experience lingering or chronic pain.

One thing I like to be clear about is that anything can create a trauma-response in the body and sometimes we have underlying trauma we may not even remember. As a patient, you don’t need to know all the answers or causes, all you need to do is let the needles reset your body’s pain and trauma response cycle. If you are dealing with chronic pain or mental health issues, always speak to your doctor and therapist. Acupuncture is not a substitute for psychotherapy, but it can be a powerful tool for moving the physical blockages that can’t always be reached by other treatments. The goal of any acupuncture treatment is to return you to your natural ability to heal. You deserve to feel better!