Post-operative recovery can be tricky. Depending upon the severity of the procedure, a patient can take months to heal fully. Pain management is of particular concern during these times, as doctors often have to balance the patient’s comfort level with the risk of dependence on pain medication. Opioid medication is still the main method of treatment following major surgery, but opiates involve a host of potential side effects like nausea, itching, drowsiness, etc i. Over time, excessive reliance on both opioids and anti-inflammatory medication can have detrimental effects on the liver and kidneys, and opioids may begin to lose efficacy as the patient builds a tolerance to the drug ii.
On the other hand, acupuncture is not associated with any negative side effects, and has become a widely accepted alternative therapy to help manage pain levels, decrease inflammation, and speed up the healing process during post-operative recovery iii.
Acupuncture is a therapy taken from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that involves needling of Acupoints or meridians, which are sites around the body linked with important nerve clusters. Stimulation of these sites encourages the body’s natural healing mechanisms, and provides a number of benefits that directly improve a patient’s experience during post-operative recovery.
The most significant benefit to receiving acupuncture is perhaps pain management. Acupuncture encourages the release of the neurotransmitters Endorphins, Enkephalins, and Dynorphin, which are the body’s natural painkillers. Additionally, acupuncture is thought to increase the amount of neuropeptide Y in the body, which is another neurotransmitter that helps inhibit the perception of pain iv. A systemic review of randomized, controlled trials testing the efficacy of acupuncture vs. sham (or fake) acupuncture revealed that patients who received true acupuncture treatment reported significantly lower scores in postoperative pain levels and opioid consumption v.
In addition to providing pain relief, acupuncture strengthens the immune system and combats inflammation in the body, both of which are vitally important for healthy, quick recovery following a surgery. This is largely achieved through increasing circulation of blood throughout the body vi, though acupuncture also causes the body to release cortisol, which is the main hormone known to reduce inflammation vii.
Acupuncture is also widely known to ease stress and promote relaxation of tense muscles that can contribute to discomfort in postoperative recovery. The immobility required of affected members of the body during recovery contributes to a tightening of the muscles and tendons, which very often results in pain and restricted movement. The release of the neurotransmitters and hormones listed above can help prevent the tension during immobile periods, and can ease pain afterwards. The increased blood flow to the affected muscles is also effective for rapid healing.
FMRI scans have shown that patients receiving acupuncture have increased activity in the limbic system of their brains, which is responsible for moderating emotions like fear and anger; this is believed to help control anxiety and depression, which commonly follow major surgeries of all types viii.
Acupuncture is a safe, natural therapy that is excellent on its own, or used as a supplementary treatment along with other Western medical solutions for postoperative recovery. As mentioned before, acupuncture is not associated with any negative side effects or complications, so long as it is administered by a certified professional. If you believe that acupuncture is a solution to help with your post-surgery recovery, contact your acupuncturist today to talk about creating a customized care plan to ensure you’re back on your feet quickly and with minimal complications.