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A practitioner setting needles into a patient's knee with a supply cart and three other sleeping patients in the background.

Community Acupuncture for Inflammation

Tuesday, May 30th, 2017

by Stef Cordes & Lisa Baird

The “inflammatory response,” or inflammation is a natural reaction to physical trauma or injury, and a key part of the immune response to heal wounds and fight infection. Unregulated or “out-of-control” inflammation, however, can contribute to serious health problems including chronic pain, asthma, cancer, heart disease, and autoimmune diseases.

Our inflammatory response is part of a complex process involving the release of several types of white blood cells and associated chemicals to both heal damaged tissue and fight off infections. The inflammation phase of this process is only one part of the process though–we’re not supposed to stay in this phase. An example of an unregulated inflammation response could be a sinus infection that turns into months of rhinitis long after the infection is gone, or a shoulder sprain that stays swollen and painful and doesn’t heal no matter how much you rest it, or out of control inflammatory responses resulting in multiple chemical and food intolerances and/or autoimmune disease. The immune system is vast and complex; there are millions of ways it can go out of balance.

Unregulated inflammation also has a powerful effect on mood and energy levels and can make us feel depressed and tired. There is growing evidence that inflammatory cytokines (cytokines are messenger cells from the immune system) contribute to the development of depression. Cytokines have the ability to influence our brains and they can even cause changes in our behaviour. In cases of acute inflammation, these inflammatory cytokines promote conservation of energy to combat infection or allow recovery from an injury. But chronic exposure to elevated inflammatory cytokines may lead to depression and long-term exhaustion. Which is to say, it makes sense for us to get tired and not have much motivation if we’re sick or injured; this encourages us to stay in bed and get better. But if you’ve got chronic low-level inflammation, an unregulated inflammation response might make you feel low or depressed.

Fortunately, acupuncture can treat both body-wide inflammation including allergic responses (asthma, sinusitis, and colitis for example) as well as more local inflammation like tendonitis. We regularly treat people for injuries that aren’t healing properly–the elbow sprain that doesn’t get better with rest, carpal tunnel syndrome that flares up with the slightest use, the chronically inflamed and sore lower back. More than once, someone has come in for treatment with a visibly swollen joint, had a treatment, left the clinic, and then come back with wide eyes to show us how much the swelling has receded already. (This isn’t common though, so please don’t expect this to happen. Healing usually requires patience and time as well.)

We’ve seen acupuncture be very supportive in cases of more generalized (and less localised) inflammation, such as cases of autoimmune disease flare-up when everything hurts, or chronic asthma, or colitis, or eczema affecting many parts of the body. We think that this has to do with acupuncture’s ability to shift the body into rest-and-digest mode, which is the mode we need to be in to do repair. It seems that spending time in rest-and-digest mode allows our bodies to pay more attention to self-regulation, which can get us out of the inflammation phase if we’ve gotten stuck there. It’s no coincidence that periods of intense stress will often cause flare-ups in our patients with chronic inflammatory conditions.

If you have questions about how acupuncture can help you with inflammation, please get in touch.

A practitioner setting needles into a patient's knee with a supply cart and three other sleeping patients in the background.

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GIA