Neuropathic pain

Neuropathic pain results from damage to, or dysfunction of, the system that normally signals pain. The International Association for the Study of Pain defines neuropathic pain as follows: ‘Pain initiated or caused by a primary lesion or dysfunction in the nervous system. Peripheral neuropathic pain occurs when the lesion or dysfunction affects the peripheral nervous system. Central pain may be retained as the term for when the lesion or dysfunction affects the central nervous system.

In general, acupuncture seems to be at least as beneficial as the drugs it has been tested against, though in some circumstances neither may be very effective. As yet, there is insufficient research to indicate which patient groups it may be most helpful for. Acupuncture may offer additional benefits, from better sleep to reduced mortality, and probably has fewer side effects than pharmaceutical treatment.

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In general, acupuncture is believed to stimulate the nervous system and cause the release of neurochemical messenger molecules. The resulting biochemical changes influence the body’s homeostatic mechanisms, thus promoting physical and emotional well-being.

Research has shown that acupuncture treatment may specifically help to relieve neuropathic pain by:

  • Reducing hypersensitivity induced by spinal nerve ligation, is an effect dependent on the opioid system.

  • Inhibiting paclitaxel-induced allodynia/hyperalgesia through spinal opioid receptors.

  • Influencing the neurotrophic factor signalling system, which is important in neuropathic pain.

  • Acting on areas of the brain known to reduce sensitivity to pain and stress, as well as promoting relaxation and deactivating the ‘analytical’ brain, which is responsible for anxiety and worry.

  • Increasing the release of adenosine, which has antinociceptive properties.

  • Improving muscle stiffness and joint mobility by increasing local microcirculation, which aids the dispersal of swelling.

  • Reducing inflammation, by promoting release of vascular and immunomodulatory factors.