Chan Gunn has a cure for much of the world’s physical pain — the aches and strains that don’t usually show up on MRIs or X-rays, but can be debilitating nonetheless.
Working out of his Vancouver clinic, he has spent the past four decades spreading the word about his non-surgical, non-pharmaceutical technique for alleviating chronic pain, called intramuscular stimulation (IMS).
A blend of Eastern acupuncture and Western medicine, it involves inserting a needle deep into muscle, causing it to relax, thereby relieving pressure on whichever nerve is causing a patient’s pain. A few such treatments are usually enough to banish the aches.
Dr. Gunn, a general practitioner, is convinced that IMS is the answer for millions of people with continual pain in their back, neck, arms and legs, or those suffering from headaches or neuralgia, which includes extreme skin sensitivity. Thousands of sports medicine physicians and physiotherapists, including those at UBC’s Allan McGavin Sports Medicine Centre, have taken it up. His Institute for the Study and Treatment of Pain in Vancouver has a large backlog of would-be practitioners.
Yet Gunn IMS, the name he has given to the signature technique, is still largely unknown in medical circles.
Now the Faculty of Medicine will lend a hand to his cause. Working with the Division of Sports Medicine, Dr. Gunn and colleagues will expand training for medical professionals, perform research into its effectiveness, and raise overall awareness of the technique.
“As just one person, I can only do so much,” Dr. Gunn says. “Most people who need Gunn IMS have no access to it, because they don’t know about it, or their physicians or therapists don’t know about it, or they live far from a qualified practitioner. With UBC’s help, I’m confident that IMS will become a common remedy for people tortured by chronic pain.”
The Faculty will create a training program, establish a research fund for graduate and undergraduate students, and hold an annual lecture at UBC focusing on Gunn IMS and pain caused by nerve damage (known as neuropathic pain). In the longer term, the Faculty is considering a dedicated space for training and research.
“Dr. Gunn is truly a pioneer, and the medical establishment has much to learn from his ‘outside-the-box’ thinking,” says Gavin Stuart, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and UBC’s Vice Provost Health. “UBC is known for exploring new ideas, which are often unjustly overlooked by conventional wisdom. Thanks to this new partnership with Dr. Gunn, UBC will now lead the way in spreading knowledge about this treatment and affirming its usefulness.”
Dr. Gunn, of Chinese Malaysian origin, who earned his medical degree at Cambridge University and settled in Vancouver in 1966, developed his technique while working for the B.C. Workers’ Compensation Board, which had asked him to investigate claimants’ who complained of persistent back pain.
He uncovered a curious pattern. Those with pain that persisted beyond a few weeks also tended to exhibit extreme tenderness in the affected area. Sometimes, people with pain in other parts of the body also exhibited a similar sensitivity, both in the affected area and close to their spine.
From those observations and others, he concluded that such persistent pain is not caused solely by tissue injury, but also involved some sort of nerve dysfunction—the spinal nerves being the most vulnerable part of the body. That leads to an unfortunate feedback loop: a nerve goes awry, causing the muscle to react and contract, thereby pinching the nerve. Not only can this situation not be imaged—it can’t be cut or medicated away.
While Dr. Gunn’s interest in acupuncture led him to his needle-based technique for relaxing muscles around “trigger points,” he makes it clear that IMS is firmly grounded in scientifically established concepts of Western anatomy, and must be based on a systematic, specific medical examination of each patient.
“Gunn IMS is used extensively now in musculoskeletal medicine,” says Don McKenzie, Professor and Director of the Allan McGavin Sports Medicine Centre. “Dr. Gunn has demonstrated its usefulness in treating patients with neuropathic pain and Gunn IMS represents the standard of care in the management of the elite athlete with musculoskeletal pain or injury.”