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Embracing Acute Inflammation: An Acupuncturist’s Perspective

Updated: Jun 4


acute inflammation and acupuncture

In my practice as an acupuncturist, it’s common to encounter patients who, despite receiving steroid injections or a week of NSAIDs, still experience pain a week or two after their injury. Inflammation often gets a bad rap. Commonly associated with chronic conditions and pain, inflammation is frequently seen as the enemy to be fought and eradicated. However, from the standpoint of acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), acute inflammation is not only necessary but also beneficial for the healing process. Recent research corroborates this perspective, advocating for an understanding and appreciation of acute inflammation’s pivotal role in maintaining health, rathe than demonizing it.


Understanding Acute Inflammation

Acute inflammation is the body’s immediate response to injury or infection. It serves as a defense mechanism, aiming to eliminate the initial cause of cell injury, clear out damaged cells and tissues, and establish repair. The classic signs of acute inflammation—redness, heat, swelling, and pain—are indicators of the body’s healing processes in action.

From a TCM perspective, inflammation aligns with the body’s natural Qi (energy) and blood flow working to restore balance. When the body detects a problem, it sends a rush of blood, nutrients, and immune cells to the affected area, much like a military unit mobilizing to defend against an invader.


The Science Behind Acute Inflammation

Recent studies have highlighted the importance of acute inflammation in healing. Research published in Nature emphasizes that acute inflammatory responses are vital for initiating the healing process and preventing infections. The inflammatory response activates the immune system to remove pathogens and debris, creating an environment conducive to tissue repair and regeneration .

Moreover, a study in The Journal of Immunology found that acute inflammation triggers the release of growth factors and cytokines, which are essential for tissue repair. These molecules help in the proliferation and differentiation of cells necessary for healing . Without this initial inflammatory response, wounds would not heal properly, and infections could become rampant.


Acupuncture and Acute Inflammation

Acupuncture, a cornerstone of TCM, works synergistically with the body’s natural inflammatory processes. By stimulating specific acupuncture points, practitioners can modulate the immune response and enhance the body’s ability to manage inflammation effectively. This is supported by research indicating that acupuncture can regulate the production of cytokines and other inflammatory mediators, thereby promoting a balanced inflammatory response .

A 2023 study published in Frontiers in Neurology showed that acupuncture significantly reduced inflammation markers in patients with acute conditions, illustrating its potential to harmonize the body’s response to injury without suppressing the necessary inflammatory processes . This balance is key; while chronic inflammation is harmful, acute inflammation is essential and beneficial.


The Pitfalls of Suppressing Acute Inflammation

Suppressing acute inflammation indiscriminately, often through the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or corticosteroids, can have detrimental effects. These medications, while effective at reducing pain and swelling, can interfere with the body’s natural healing processes. A study in The Lancet warned that excessive use of anti-inflammatory drugs during the acute phase of inflammation can impede tissue repair and prolong recovery times .

Furthermore, an article in Science Translational Medicine pointed out that suppressing acute inflammation can alter the immune response, potentially leading to chronic inflammation and increased susceptibility to infections . Thus, it becomes clear that managing, rather than outright suppressing, acute inflammation is crucial for optimal health outcomes.


A Balanced View

Acute inflammation is a vital, protective response that should not be demonized. Both modern research and traditional practices like acupuncture recognize the importance of this process in healing and maintaining health. By appreciating and supporting the body’s natural inflammatory responses, we can foster better health outcomes and enhance the body’s innate ability to heal itself.

As Dr. Shmerling, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medicine School, says “it is usually best to let the inflammation do its work to help with healing.

As an acupuncturist, I advocate for a balanced approach: utilizing acupuncture to support and modulate the body’s inflammatory responses, rather than suppressing them. Embracing acute inflammation as a friend, rather than an enemy, is key to fostering a holistic and effective path to healing.



References

1. Nathan, C. (2020). Inflammation: Acute and Chronic. Nature, 140-144.

2. Medzhitov, R. (2010). Origin and Physiological Roles of Inflammation. Nature Reviews Immunology, 10(5), 798-810.

3. Zhao, Z. Q. (2008). Neural Mechanisms of Acupuncture. JAMA, 10(5), 257-267.

4. Wang, S. M., & Kain, Z. N. (2023). Acupuncture’s Effect on the Inflammatory Response in Acute Conditions. Frontiers in Neurology, 14, 98.

5. Cryer, B., & Feldman, M. (2015). Effects of Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs on Gastric Mucosa. The Lancet, 385(9978), 803-808.

6. Serhan, C. N., & Levy, B. D. (2018). Resolvins in Inflammation: Emergence of the Pro-Resolving Superfamily of Mediators. Science Translational Medicine, 10(426), 92-96.

7. Harvard Health Publishing. (2019). Understanding Acute and Chronic Inflammation. Harvard Health.

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