Pain Management in Older Adults

older adult on bicycle

Chronic pain is the number one reason seniors visit an acupuncturist. As many patients age, pain management becomes a daily consideration. Years of wear and tear on knees, shoulders, hips, and feet can show up later in life, limiting patients’ mobility, interfering with sleep, and greatly impacting their quality of life.

Acupuncture is an ideal pain management approach for seniors because it is drug-free, easy to implement, and relatively low-cost.

But why is pain such a common complaint in older adults? As we age, our bodies tend to become less flexible. The blood and fluid necessary to keep our joints and muscles supple decreases naturally with age, both because we are not extracting as much nutrition from our food and because our hormone levels change. Much of the energy required for daily function gets used up by the organs, leaving the limbs weak, stiff, and painful.

The body is a contained network of blood, fluid, and nutrients moving through our muscles, organs, and bones. Exercise assists the body in flushing waste products from the system and bringing fresh oxygen to the limbs and brain. Like exercise, acupuncture creates movement in the body, which is particularly helpful for seniors who have a hard time being active.

When we stop moving our limbs, the heart, lungs, and blood vessels are forced to pump the circulatory system without added assistance, which can be quite difficult depending on the health of these organs as we age. Lack of movement also causes joints and muscles to stiffen, making it harder for blood and fluids to pass, adding to sensations of pain.

Acupuncture needles create movement in the circuitry of the body by tapping into the meridian system, a network of invisible electrical impulses that precede the creation of blood, bones, lymph, and organs. This system of impulses connects all parts of the body in a web. It is the explanation for why an acupuncturist can insert a needle in the hand to ease back pain and why a point on the back of the calf can help with hemorrhoids.

Use of the meridian system is also a major distinction between acupuncture and what is referred to as “dry needling.” Dry needling is a technique that uses acupuncture needles to break up stagnation in a muscle, but this technique does not make use of the meridian system. An acupuncturist’s knowledge of the meridian system offers her many different ways of treating a patient’s pain. For example, just because a patient has pain in her shoulder does not mean we are limited to only needling the shoulder. The meridian system can relay a message to the shoulder through stimulation in other parts of the body.

The meridian system is self-regulating in the sense that its natural inclination is toward health and wellbeing. You are biologically “wired” for health. However, influences like diet, lifestyle, emotional difficulties, and sleep patterns can disrupt the smooth flow of the meridian system. Since the circuitry of the meridian system comes before the blood and lymph networks, it is important to treat the root cause of pain, which actually starts on the level of the meridians.

The meridian system, along with the blood, muscles, bones, and cartilage, can take on unhealthy patterns as a response to physical trauma, such as breaking a hip, overusing the knees, or wearing shoes with poor support. I often look at pain as the body having adopted a “habit” of organizing itself in a particular way around a trauma as a means of protection. Acupuncture helps disrupt this response.

In a way, we can consider acupuncture passive exercise for the meridian system. By encouraging the body to redirect its energy in a healthy pattern, those knots of pain can gradually unravel. Chronic pain is not always easy to alter, but by giving the body a consistent message through acupuncture, we can often make a big impact on very stubborn problems, all without the use of medication.

Pain management is an important consideration in aging. Because exercise is not always a realistic way to work out stiff bones and muscles—especially if a patient is in a wheelchair or recovering from surgery—acupuncture should be considered in senior pain management plans. It is a simple adjunct therapy that can make a significant difference in a senior’s daily life, enabling them to enjoy the things they used to love or discover new joys in their later years.