A key component of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture can also be an effective treatment for chronic pain.

Inserting needles into areas of pain to ease pain may sound like a contradiction. Yet, acupuncture can — and does — help.

To many, acupuncture is largely hocus-pocus. Unlike Western medicine, it is not always supported by hard scientific evidence. But this ancient Chinese practice has its fans.

“We do see patients with severe pain where even with medication, they are unable to control their pain well,” said Ms Jeraldine Seah, Senior Acupuncturist, Division of Anaesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine, Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

“Acupuncture helps improve quality of life because chronic pain can affect their mood and also their sleep.”

A key component of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), acupuncture addresses the body’s so-called imbalances. TCM believes that the body’s vital energy, or qi, courses through channels in the body known as meridians, which are connected to the organs and their functions. When the qi is blocked, it upsets the body’s functions, and needs to be re-balanced.

Ms Seah said that during acupuncture treatment, needles are inserted into specific areas of the body known as acupoints. Singleuse, pre-sterilised needles are used. “The needles are manipulated manually or by using electrical stimulation to re-establish the free flow of qi to restore balance, regulate yin and yang, and trigger the body’s natural healing response,” she added.

“When there is an imbalance in yin and yang, it will result in illness. Acupuncture helps bring the body back into equilibrium, balancing the yin and yang in the body,” said Ms Seah, who is also a licensed TCM physician.

Acupuncture, a referral service, has been offered as an alternative treatment at SGH’s Pain Management Centre since 1998. Demand has been rising steadily by around 10 per cent every year. The Centre’s two acupuncturists see about 7,000 cases each year, 60 to 70 per cent of which are for relieving pain of the lower back, neck and shoulder. About two-thirds of patients are elderly Chinese, although the Centre has started seeing younger people seek acupuncture treatment.

The growing interest comes amid the Government’s efforts to develop the TCM industry. “Younger people are more open and informed about this treatment. They also seek more natural and holistic treatments,” said Ms Seah.

Besides easing pain, acupuncture can also be used to help other conditions, such as stroke, insomnia, anxiety, gastrointestinal problems, as well as the side effects of cancer treatment like fatigue, nausea and insomnia.

Patients typically undergo five acupuncture sessions to find out how well they respond to the treatment. “If after five to 10 times, they do not experience any relief or change in their symptoms, we will ask them to return to their medical specialists to seek other treatment modalities,” said Ms Seah.

A treatment plan usually involves one or two sessions a week of about 25 minutes each time. The number of treatments depends on the condition being treated. For chronic or complex conditions, a longer treatment period of up to three months may be required.

In some cases, a doctor may prescribe medication and acupuncture treatment concurrently for a patient. If acupuncture is found to be of help to the patient, his medication may be reduced.

Acupuncture treatments are generally safe, with very few side effects. Occasionally some patients experience mild bleeding when the needles are removed, said Ms Seah. There is some discomfort when the needles are inserted, but patients do not usually feel pain as the needles used are very fine.

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