Pain is a very complex entity, deserving of many different approaches. In Chinese medicine we use two general approaches to treat and manage pain successfully.

These two approaches can be described using a tree metaphor: the branch and the root. A tree can live without a branch, but it cannot live without its roots. the branch represents the periphery—the tip of the iceberg, to use another image. The root represents the deeper, constitutional nature of the problem.

branch approach to pain is oriented toward treatment of symptoms. The only concerns are those centered around your experience of pain: Where is it? How intense is it? How deep is it?

A branch approach is primarily concerned only with reducing or eliminating the pain, regardless of cause.

root approach is actually concerned less with immediate cessation of pain, and more with resolving the underlying issues—the deeper, harder-to-see and harder-to-change factors that might be causing pain to linger.

It focuses on systemic issues, rather than local ones, and hence the root approach can venture into areas of diagnosis and treatment that seem to have little to do with the pain. Heart and cardiovascular issues, for instance, can have a systemic effect that influence the resolution of local pain.

Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses. The root approach aims at long-term and deep transformation, but it can take awhile to see results because it’s attempting to coordinate and influence many different physiological factors. You might have to spend a lot of time and patience and observe steady but gradual progress.

The branch approach is more satisfying in the short term, but if underlying pathologies aren’t resolved, your pain may very well come back, forcing you to get treated again and again for the same thing. Or, worse, removing the pain may merely mask the real problem.

For example, take chest pain. If you’ve got chest pain, and you take a magic pill or magic needle to make the pain go away, you might keep going on with your day thinking everything’s fine—until the heart attack kills you.

In this case, the pain is like the “check engine” light on your car, and the clot in your artery is like the actual problem with the engine. Turning off the “check engine” light doesn’t do anything but fool you into thinking that you’re well.

On the other hand, if you’ve had carpal tunnel syndrome in your right wrist, and you’ve being treated with a root approach for years with not much resolution of pain, it might be time to ask if there’s a more direct way to attack the pain.

Ideally, the approaches are combined:

  • Reduce or remove the pain, and
  • Simultaneously, treat the source of the pain.

For instance, for someone suffering whiplash from an automobile accident that happened 20 years ago, I would simultaneously treat the pain, while at the same time addressing the reasons that an injury that happened two decades ago still hasn’t healed.

In this way, both the need for short-term relief and the need for long-term resolution are satisfied.

Also see Pain Relief with Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine for more general information about treating pain with Chinese medicine.

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