Acupuncture for Scar Tissue Pain

A question my patients often ask is, “What’s the most needles you’ve ever put in someone at once.” Often this question comes after all their needles are in place and they’re looking down in bemusement at the proliferation of needles sprouting from their arms and legs. Wondering, no doubt, if they might be in contention for the top spot. “Sixty-nine,” I reply and quickly go on to explain the special circumstances surrounding that particular treatment.

The recipient of this very high needle-count treatment was a middle-aged lady I saw while I was still doing my clinical rounds before getting my degree. Her case is one that I particularly remember not just because of the unusual needle count, but because it was the first scar treatment I ever did. The patient had undergone abdominal surgery, leaving her with a long scar on her right side just below the ribs. Unfortunately, the scar had become infected post operation, resulting in a deep, thick band of scar tissue. The tissue around the scar was very hard to the touch—similar in feel to a muscle in spasm. The patient reported extreme pain with any turning or stretching of the torso and occasional sharp, shooting pains around the area of the scar even without movement.

Acupuncture treatment for scar tissue involves inserting very small needles at short intervals along both edges of the scar. The size of the scar, therefore, largely determines the number of needles. Since she had such a large scar the needle-count was, necessarily, quite high. We would often joke with her as we were doing the needling that she was running us out of needles and that we’d likely not have any left for our other patients.

Needling the edges of the scar tissue does several things. First and foremost, by needling so densely in that area you are creating a controlled microtrauma that stimulates the body to start breaking down and remodeling the scar tissue. Second, the needling increases local circulation, which speeds healing. Finally, acupuncture decreases inflammation—keeping the body’s inflammatory response under control also helps healing to proceed more rapidly.

I have done many scar treatments since that patient. I usually see problematic scar tissue, either from surgery or traumatic injury, around joints such as the knees and shoulders or, more rarely, the wrists and ankles. Joints are common ‘pinch points’ for nerves and blood vessels because they are often running through narrow paths between unyielding boney structures. If you add dense, fibrous scar tissue to the picture, restricting those channels even more, you have a potential recipe for chronic pain and reduced range of motion. With the right stimulus, the body has the ability to remodel even old scar tissue, though treatment is easier if the scar tissue was formed recently.

And the current record-holder for “most acupuncture needles I’ve ever used in one treatment” Happily we were able to help her regain her full normal range of motion and completely eliminate her pain.

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