Traditional Chinese Medicine

Alleviates Chronic Pain

Brendan Mattson

Brendan Mattson is a doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine (DACM) and serves as academic dean of graduate studies at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine (PCOM). For more than 30 years, PCOM has provided superior student education and hands-on patient care to those looking for holistic alternatives to conventional medicine.

       The school offers training in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and bodywork therapy education, as well as acupuncture, massage and other therapeutic treatments for patients in a private or group clinic setting. Mattson received extensive training at the Shanghai Shuguang Hospital, in China, and specializes in relieving chronic pain associated with cancer care.

       He notes that TCM is an efficient and sustainable way for patients to find relief from a multitude of physical and emotional symptoms because it looks at how the body is functioning as a whole. TCM can be especially efficient in treating persistent conditions such as chronic pain associated with fibromyalgia, headaches, cramps, back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and more.

How does TCM differ from conventional Western medicine?

Traditional Chinese Medicine is a complete system of medicine that has been around for about 2,000 years. It is a holistic, individualized view of a person’s health. Instead of focusing on  the condition, we treat the patient who happens to have the condition. We also use inspiration and metaphors from nature to understand how a body should function and understand why it dysfunctions.

       We look at cyclical changes to help harmonize the body’s natural circadian rhythms. We also use herbal medicine to change the internal environment of the body when it gets out of balance. Warming herbs like cinnamon and ginger can help people who have colder constitutions, and cooling herbs like mint and chrysanthemum can alleviate extra heat in the body.

What makes chronic pain so difficult to treat?

Chronic pain is often the result of a past trauma, and the body has been holding on to tension for a long time. The nervous system goes into a “fight-or-flight” mode and the body unconsciously guards the muscle or injury to try to protect it, which blocks the energy flow and slows healing.

       If the cause of the pain came from a recent sports injury or other soft tissue injury, we tend to see quicker results in treatment. However, degenerative joint disease or osteoarthritis can require regular treatment for longer duration to manage flare-ups. At PCOM, we usually start with acupuncture, which can come in the form of cupping, moxibustion, or gua sha, as well as needling. We complement that with instruction in simple forms of tai chi, which improves joint stability, flexibility and endurance.

       We also teach qigong, which, like mindfulness meditation, can help people calm their thoughts, induce the relaxation response and develop a new relationship with their body. Modern medicine often turns to medications such as opiates to suppress the central nervous system, but these can lead to addiction and harmful side effects.

What can people do to prevent or inhibit chronic pain?

A key aspect of TCM is getting people to be an active participant in their health, instead of passively receiving care. The more patients can become aware of their own body’s rhythms and cycles, the more efficiently a practitioner can help them to find harmony. Regulating sleeping and eating patterns and paying attention to how certain foods affect them is extremely important. People have different constitutional balances and may notice pain flare-ups when they eat foods that are overly processed or are inflammatory, such as sugar and refined flour.

       Herbal supplements can help regulate those constitutional imbalances, as well. Anything people can do to regulate the flow of qi, the life energy in the body, will help them feel better overall. Qi is not a mystical concept, but rather a descriptive term that can refer to a subjective sense of vitality or the efficiency of an organ’s functions, but also to more palpable forms like gas or fluid movement. That literal gas, when it gets stuck in the GI tract, can lead to discomfort that we consider an example of qi stagnation. Movement, meditation, therapeutic massage, herbal medicine and acupuncture all are catalysts for qi to circulate more freely. Moving it through increases the circulation and flow of healing resources to all parts of the body.

The Pacific College of Oriental Medicine is located at 65 E. Wacker Place, 21st Fl., Chicago. For more information, call 773-477-4822, email or or visit

Carrie Jackson is an Evanston-based writer and frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine. Connect with her at


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