Yes, Acupuncture May Help With ED If Chronic Pain Is the Issue
Needles don't frequently evoke thoughts of relaxation or warm and fuzzy feelings. But for many people, the Chinese practice of acupuncture, in which thin needles are applied to pressure points throughout the body, is just that: a source of relaxation and a contributor to general well-being.
"Acupuncture is a part of Chinese medicine, so it's a small piece, but it's really about trying to have well-being in life," said Michelle Blackwood, an acupuncturist of 20 years who serves the community of Gresham, Oregon. "Pain relief is typically very fast to respond to treatments. Obviously, certain things are harder to treat if you're dealing with age-related degeneration—you can't fix that, but it's rare that people don't get some relief."
Practiced for thousands of years by Chinese medical practitioners, acupuncture has been adopted and adapted by a number of physicians and clinicians in Western medicine. They have seen the benefits play out for patients living with chronic or acute pain.
"Often, when you're dealing with people with chronic pain, you're dealing with some level of subacute or acute [pain] on top of that," Blackwood said. "So I often feel like I'm having the greatest impact and the greatest obvious outcome on the everyday stuff that aggravates their underlying chronic condition."
Knowing that erectile dysfunction (ED) can result from a wide array of complex and interconnected factors, is it possible that this millennia-old practice might be beneficial to men suffering from chronic or newly acknowledged ED? While there is still a lot of room for additional discovery and scientific research, there are situations in which acupuncture could be a boon if not a cure.
How acupuncture works
Acupuncture has many different iterations, and it's likely that no two acupuncturists practice it with the exact same approach or influences guiding them.
Generally, the practitioner will penetrate the skin (most people experience little or no pain) with needles not much thicker than a strand of hair, inserting them into an area of the body to evoke a pressure sensation or stimulated response, which can vary in description from person to person.
This process, when performed by a qualified acupuncturist, is thought to stimulate the central nervous system and release chemicals in the muscles, brain, spinal cord or other areas where symptoms are experienced by the patient. This biochemical interaction activates the body's natural capacity to heal and can result in a focused or general experience of relaxation or increased energy. Again, reports can vary in different patients being treated for pain or other conditions.
In addition to the needle application, acupuncturists may utilize other forms of stimulation, including heat, friction, electricity, suction in the form of cupping or other types of pressure.
In traditional Chinese medicine, there are thought to be thousands of different acupuncture points connecting the body's pathways and meridian points.
Western medical research indicates that acupuncture is most effective at treating chronic pain, though benefits have been documented in the treatment of such diverse symptoms or conditions as nausea, headache, menstrual cramps, asthma, acute pain following surgery or injury and more.
It's important to see a qualified acupuncturist, so be sure to look into the practitioner's certifications, licenses and service history before undergoing treatment. Improper use of acupuncture needles can result in pain or other harm to the patient. Acupuncture needles must be sterilized, and equipment is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, just as with any other medical service in the United States.
Impact on lifestyle
It's well documented that erectile dysfunction has causes beyond aging or illness. Chronic pain or stress, physical or emotional trauma, general health matters and lifestyle choices can all contribute to recurring difficulty in getting or maintaining an erection. While acupuncture shouldn't be treated as a one-stop solution for any or all of these concerns, a holistic approach to your health that includes acupuncture may help you get a handle on complex and intertwined health questions.
"All illness in my experience is either, you know, 'chicken-or-the-egg,' [meaning] stress is definitely related. Either stress brings on or exacerbates a condition or the condition creates significant stress in your life because you're not feeling well, and they both aggravate one another," Blackwood said. "And acupuncture actually does very, very well at relieving stress and anxiety and deterring depression. Probably one of the largest reasons why people come to see me is to just feel mentally/emotionally better."
It stands to reason that if someone is experiencing significant pain or other chronic conditions along a similar timeline to their experiences with ED, acupuncture might be a good starting point for a low-risk procedure with potentially comprehensive results.
However, to achieve the results you want from acupuncture—as with all forms of medical treatment—you must be able to confront your symptoms and conditions clearly and directly with your own medical team and/or acupuncturist.
Stress in the modern age
Stress can certainly be a factor when it comes to living with ED, but stress can also come from a variety of experiential, physical or emotional sources. It's important to recognize when you're experiencing stress, with traceable roots that can be addressed with one or more treatment methods. But it's also important to know that sometimes stress and its physical response can't be dealt with through a single treatment or method.
Sometimes you have to stop and analyze your lifestyle as a whole and consider where daily, incremental change might be needed. This can be in the form of behaviors or mindset.
"There's a disconnect right now between the amount of stress that people perceive and the amount of stress that is real," said Andrew Shubov, M.D., who incorporates acupuncture as part of his practice in East-West medicine at UCLA Health.
"We as a culture seem to be assuming that we're all struggling from anxiety, insomnia, depression, obesity and all these stress-related conditions even though humans have never had it so good," Shubov added. "Most of our physical needs are attended to. But mentally, we're terrified of a million different things."
Perhaps the pervasive fear he refers to is an underlying current for many men dealing with ED in their lives. It's entirely possible, considering the other symptoms and conditions that emerge from this implied state of ongoing panic.
"I see a lot of chronic pain conditions coming out of that: fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic migraines, autoimmune diseases, as well," Shubov said. "Problems with people just being chronically stressed."
We're constantly learning more about the effects of stress on the body, so perhaps this indicates a greater need for research investigating the potential of acupuncture to deal with stress and other prevalent issues plaguing people today.
A holistic approach
Should you see an acupuncturist if ED is causing problems in your personal life? Blackwood doesn't seem to think there is any harm in the effort as long as all avenues are pursued honestly and carefully by both patient and provider. Asked if acupuncture could be harmful for men or couples struggling with ED, her opinion is clear.
"I do not think there would be harm as long as the provider was clear upfront," Blackwood said. "As long as you're upfront with the fact that this could be a hard thing to treat, acupuncture, I think, makes everything a little better. If you have ED, if you want to have a better relationship with your partner, or just yourself even, then that's a huge stressor when you can't. So if you can relieve the stress and have more ease with that, then you can go into the experience with more ease and less expectation of the outcome, and you can enjoy it in other ways."
She added that acupuncture is generally just part of a larger equation, however.
"The person would also be taught some breath work and some Kegels and Chinese qigong and energy work to improve the circulation to wherever the problem is in your body," Blackwood said.
Of course, any time you reach out to a new healthcare provider, it's critical to be upfront and transparent with them about your health concerns and your goals for treatment. ED can correlate with an array of potential physiological or psychological factors, so it may be best to first address your interest in acupuncture with your primary care physician or a urologist.
From there, the acupuncturist you choose can tell you whether they are the right practitioner to provide the treatment you need, based on your symptoms and conditions.