Medical Journal

Why put a needle in the hand when the pain is in the back?

Why do they put needles in where it doesn’t hurt?

Have you ever gone to an acupuncturist for back pain and get a treatment on the right hand, which seems to have nothing to do with the pain in the back? This is based on the unique principle of treatment in Oriental Medicine where the right side of the body is treated when pain occurs on the left side, and vice versa. And when there’s pain towards the top of the body, the lower part of the body is treated, and vice versa. This principle of treatment is very different than our common knowledge so those who are unfamiliar with acupuncture treatments often expect to be treated where it hurts and question the doctor when the needle is put somewhere else.

The cause of pain isn’t always at where it hurts

Why does Oriental Medicine put needles in where it doesn’t hurt? First, the most common reason is that the medical cause behind the pain doesn’t always correlate with where it hurts. A good example of this case is disc herniation. Normally, patients who suffer from a disc herniation often feel pain near the lower back, far off from the actual herniated disc. A herniated disc in the neck causes pain near the arm or finger joints, and herniated back disc causes pain near the thigh or lower leg. Therefore, the targeted treatment should not be the arm or leg where there is a pain but near the neck and lower back where the causes of the pain lie. In similar principle, if a patient came in for a severe headache and the doctor diagnoses the pain to be caused by the liver, pushing up the overheated energy towards the head, the patient will be treated on the legs where the liver energy/chi-pathway flows rather than on the head.

Treating away from the pain heals faster

The second reason behind the principle is treating away from the area with pain is more effective. For example, it’s more effective to ask one’s superior or a boss to speak to a person of misconduct rather than to speak directly to them. Our systematic body works in a similar way. Like so, when patients suffering from chronic, long term pain are given acupuncture treatments on the area of pain, the needle might not be strong enough to stimulate the pain and when the energy circulation is stagnant near the affected area, treating it directly doesn’t treat it as effective. Hence, it’s more efficient and effective to treat areas where similar functions are performed as where it hurts.

Some acupuncture treatments focus on quick recovery and healing rather than relieving pain

The previous two explanations focus on treatment based on the cause and condition of the pain. There is another acupuncture method specific to Korea which is called ‘Sa-am’ method. ‘Sa-am’ method is famously practiced by Jun Heo and Jema Lee, two of The Three Renowned Korean Medicine Doctors, which applies the fundamentals of the Yin and Yang and the Five Elements of Oriental Medicine. This method also places acupuncture needles far away from where it hurts.

If the general principle of acupuncture treatment directs the acupuncturist to fix the cause of symptoms and pains directly, the ‘Sa-am’ method focuses on inducing the body itself to fix the area of the problem. In a figurative example, if someone is struggling to reach the top of the mountain while hiking, ‘Sa-am’ method would figure out the cause behind the struggling so that the climber can climb to the top on his own rather than moving him to the top of the mountain. In a realistic situation, doctors who practice ‘Sa-am’ method doesn’t treat the pain directly but help the patients’ body to recover on its own, which they find to be genuine treatment, so they try to avoid treating where it hurts directly with needles. I, also as an acupuncturist who practices Sa-am method, don’t treat the pain directly and a lot of new patients tend to get confused about the treatment.

If the acupuncturist treats the “wrong”, unexpected place with unexpected treatment…

Like so, it’s very common for every other acupuncturist to use different principles and methods in treating symptoms. So, do not worry if your doctor places needles far off from where it hurts. Some often request the doctor to treat with a specific method at a specific area of their preference, but this is a dangerous act that could lead to unknown results. Even though the doctor puts needles in some odd place, it’s best to acknowledge the different methods of treatment in acupuncture and simply ask questions to try to understand and respect the doctor’s specific treatment. Moreover, if the patient cannot understand or respect the doctor of his specific method of acupuncture that he practices, it would be best to find another doctor that practices acupuncture by patient’s preference of treatment rather than requesting the doctor to treat differently.


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