We usually think of acupuncture as a way to address a health problem in order to return to a state of increased wellness. It is a tool to “fix” something that has gone awry, be it lower back pain, insomnia, or anxiety. We don’t really think about it in terms of health conditions that cannot or should not be fixed, such as when a decision has been made to stop active medical intervention and to allow the dying process to unfold. However, acupuncture as a support for a person diagnosed with a terminal illness or condition makes perfect sense to those of us who practice Chinese Medicine. Acupuncture is, at its very foundation, a holistic form of medicine and as such can offer physical, mental, and emotional support in a soothing and non-invasive manner to a patient who is transitioning from this physical world.
Acupuncture in Pain Management
One of the primary goals in terminal care is to ensure that the dying patient suffers as little physical pain as possible. This often means the use of opiates and other pain medications which can cause significant digestive distress and which can also dull the senses. Acupuncture can be helpful in addressing both of these side effects of medical pain management.
Although no one wants to be in unnecessary pain, some patients value mental clarity over the “fuzzy head” that can accompany the administration of narcotics. Fortunately, not all patients have to choose one over the other. Research consistently shows that acupuncture is effective in relieving pain of all types, including pain relating to tumors, lower back pain resulting from prolonged sitting or lying in the same position, and pain in the fingers and toes that can occur as vital organs begin to shut down. With the intention of alleviating pain and NOT interfering with the dying process, integrating acupuncture with western pain relievers can result in the need for less medication, allowing the patient to more consciously interact with loved ones and to remain aware of his or her surroundings and circumstances.
The digestive system is also impacted by the use of pain medications. Constipation, bloating, dry mouth, nausea, and lack of appetite are common side effects, adding to the patient’s discomfort. While these issues may be alleviated somewhat by reducing the amount of pain medication, acupuncture addresses these side effects directly without impacting the dosage or effectiveness of pain medication. Many “evidenced based” research studies shown acupuncture’s effectiveness in alleviating numerous issues related to the digestive process.
Acupuncture as a Holistic Therapy
Five Element Acupuncture is a system of holistic care which stresses the balance of five basic aspects of our being. On a physical level, these five aspects are represented by the Liver, Heart, Spleen, Lungs and Kidneys. Physical harmony occurs when these organs remain in healthy relationship to one another, allowing the body to remain in a state of homeostasis or balance. Depending upon the dying person’s condition, one of these five functions will begin to falter first, while the others will struggle to help the body remain in homeostasis. As the vital organs and their cleansing functions begin to shut down, the body may start to experience stress as toxins accumulate and the more healthy organs become compromised. Acupuncture can help mitigate the effects of this increased toxicity as well as encourage the body to shut down in an orderly and peaceful manner. Acupuncture treatment at this point supports and allows a smooth progression; it does not interfere with the natural process.
Harmony on a mental level occurs when these five elements or energies remain in healthy relationship to one another, allowing us to move forward in life with purpose, enjoy loving relationships, integrate our life experiences in a healthy manner, connect with our spirituality, and feel safe and secure. Any of these can be stressed when we are faced with the prospect of dying. This stress can manifest not only in increased physical pain as discussed above, but in strong emotions such as anger or fear, and in unnecessary agitation and restlessness which can impede a peaceful and conscious passing. Helping someone maintain a balance in the months, weeks, or days prior to death can help a person deal with pain, unresolved conflicts, and develop greater clarity and mental ease around leaving behind this world and one’s experiences in it.
On an emotional level, the five elements represent the role that anger, love, giving and receiving support, grief, and fear play in our lives. Unresolved issues in any of these areas can create a struggle as we face the end of life. Certain acupuncture points can relax and release these emotions, allowing the dying person to accept the past without anger or regret, and to face the future without fear or anxiety. As emotions ease, the physical body relaxes. As the physical body relaxes, emotions can be released. The power of acupuncture to work on both levels simultaneously is what allows it to be such a powerful support towards the end of life, whether that be months, weeks, or days away.
Many patients with a terminal disease engage the support of Hospice, which offers a team approach to patient care that includes medical, nursing, social work, spiritual support, and a myriad of volunteer services ranging from pet therapy to Reiki. Like Five Element Acupuncture, hospice offers a comprehensive system with which to care for someone during all of the changes which accompany the dying process.
If you are dealing with a terminal illness, I encourage you to talk with your doctors or hospice care team about incorporating acupuncture treatment into your care plan. For more information, please visit the National Association of Hospice and Palliative Care Acupuncturists at www.nahpca.com.