Have you ever considered trying acupuncture to treat your chronic pain? Acupuncture has been used for over thousands of years to treat disease by using fine, sterile needles applied to specific areas of the body to stimulate energy flow. It can help reduce stress and relieve side effects of certain medications.

In this Q&A, Lucy Chen, MD, a physician researcher in Massachusetts General Hospital’s Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, discusses her clinical interests and current research that focuses on finding a reliable way to accurately measure pain to assess the effects of acupuncture. Dr. Chen hopes that her research will encourage individuals to try acupuncture as an effective and non-invasive alternative for relieving chronic pain.

Q: How is chronic pain classified? How does it differ from pain generally?

A: Medically speaking, pain is an unpleasant sensory or emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage. Pain that persists or recurs for more than three months can be considered chronic pain. For chronic pain patients, their symptoms can be from back pain, neck pain or joint pain.

Pain has a physical and psychological effect. The patient feels depressed, worthless and like they have become a burden on their family and society. Chronic pain has a multidimensional impact on patients’ lives and affects the lives of those around them. Pain is a subjective experience and currently, there is no objective way to measure it.

Q. What acupuncture research are you currently conducting?

A. Acupuncture has been practiced for over 3,000 years in China and is useful in treating many medical conditions, including chronic pain.

My research aims to find an objective tool, such as Quantitative Sensory Testing (QST), to measure a patient’s pain threshold and evaluate the effects of acupuncture in chronic pain treatment. Hopefully, we’ll soon be able to pair QST with patient reporting to get a good outcome assessment.

Part of the challenge for our research is the fact that traditional acupuncture treatment is very individualized, including the acupuncture point selection, needling method and duration. My research protocol uses a “golden standard” acupuncture method on every chronic pain patient enrolled into the study, which is different when comparing to real acupuncture treatment.

Q. Do you think alternative pain management techniques are a way to treat those who are unable to be treated by conventional medication?

A: As a pain physician, we always try to help chronic pain patients reduce opioid use and have good pain control. Many clinical studies have shown the efficacy of alternative pain management techniques. I’m interested in non-opioid methods, particularly acupuncture, for treating chronic pain.

I’m trying to bring evidence-based results to make insurance policy makers and the public at large aware that acupuncture can benefit patients dealing with chronic pain. Insurance companies not covering the treatment is the most significant barrier for patients to get acupuncture treatment.

Q: Is acupuncture mainly used for the prevention of chronic pain?

A: Acupuncture is one the most popular complementary or alternative medicines. Complementary alternative medicine refers to treatment options that differ from conventional western medicine. According to the World Health Organization acupuncture treatment recommendations, it can be used to treat a variety of medical conditions, including chronic pain.

Patients may use acupuncture in combination with, or as a replacement for, their conventional medication therapy to treat or prevent chronic pain. One good example of acupuncture’s preventive role is that it can prevent migraine headaches and significantly reduce medication use.

Q: Why are we seeing an uptick in the usage of complementary and alternative medicines?

A: People believe that complementary alternative therapies are easier to try and have fewer side effects than conventional treatment options. According to the National Health Interview Surgery (NHIS) data from 2015, 38 percent of North American population and 12 percent of the pediatric population, use some form of complementary alternative medicine. The NHIS data shows a steady increase in the population’s interest in complementary alternative medicine.

Q. What other health benefits can acupuncture provide?

A: There are many benefits resulting from acupuncture treatment. It may improve sleep, fatigue, energy levels, anxiety and depression. Because acupuncture has such a holistic effect, it works very well with patients struggling with chronic pain.

After being part of my study, patients come to me all the time and say, “Since my acupuncture treatment, I feel that I have energy again. Not only does it help me with my pain, but I feel better and I sleep better.”

Q. Do you see the public’s perception of acupuncture changing in the future?

A: Yes. I see two things pushing this issues into the mainstream. First, is the opioid crisis. We’ve been working for a while on trying to minimize the complications that arise with opioid use. We are now trying to find a non-opioid therapy, that could include a non-opioid pharmacological treatment for medication, but also non-pharmacological treatments, including acupuncture, chiropractic, massage, yoga and more.

The second is the effectiveness from acupuncture treatment. More patients may choose this treatment in combination or an alternative treatment for their chronic pain.

Learn more about the Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine.