Acupuncture is one of the best-known alternative health care systems, and at our clinic we use it for many of our patients. It was developed in ancient China and is based upon the concept of a natural vital force that flows through the body called chi (or qi). Needles are inserted into specific points to relieve pain and balance the flow of energy throughout the body. Although many people know about acupuncture in a general sense, and especially about its reputation for pain relief, they often do not grasp how and why it works.
Note: For a large listing of scientific references showing the effectiveness of Acupuncture for pain, scroll down to the bottom of this article
The art of Acupuncture is based upon ancient Chinese philosophical concepts. Acupuncturists perceive the individual to be a matrix of interrelated energies and organ systems, linked by an intricate series of energy channels in the body (called meridians). The life force called chi (pronounced "chee") flows through these channels. Chinese doctors believe that health results from integration and balance within ourselves and within the world in which we live. In a healthy person this life force is both strong and free-flowing. The insertion of Acupuncture needles is used to influence and harmonize this flow when we are sick. Acupuncture treatments are often very effective at stopping pain.
Because this ancient system of medical treatment is based upon a different and unique paradigm of the universe, Acupuncturists can often discover and treat problems that other systems of medicine see as separate. For example, it is sometimes possible to find and simultaneously treat things as different as eye symptoms, emotional symptoms and liver symptoms with a few needles placed at specific locations. In modern times, scientists have at first challenged and recently begun to accept that Acupuncture is valid, because numerous scientific studies now show it to be effective.
• People performing Acupuncture vary widely in their training and experience, so you need to check credentials. Look for licensed Acupuncturists (L.Ac.) or doctors of Chinese Medicine (OMD or DOM), who have the most training. Otherwise look for MD's, chiropractors or others who have been trained and certified.
• Acupuncturists are licensed in more than 30 states and Acupuncture is sometimes covered by insurance for certain conditions.
• Acupuncture is used for many medical conditions, not only pain. For example, several controlled studies show Acupuncture effective for depression.
• There are now more than 7,000 scientific articles on Acupuncture in the National Library of Medicine's databases, over a thousand of which are high quality (placebo-controlled and double-blinded).
• Acupuncture needles are now high-tech, and virtually painless in the hands of a skilled Acupuncturist. They are only slightly thicker than a human hair, and are dispensed in sterile single-use packets.
• University of Toronto senior researcher Bruce Pomeranz, Ph.D. (Harvard) stated, “We accumulated 16 lines of evidence . . . 16 different kinds of experiments based on 16 different assumptions . . . So my conclusion is that we have more evidence in favor of the Acupuncture-endorphin hypothesis than we have for 95% of conventional medicine.”
The Chinese developed Acupuncture based upon folk knowledge that pressing on certain points could relieve pains such as toothache or nausea. About 2,000 years ago the first important Acupuncture text was written entitled the Yellow Emperor's Classic on Internal Medicine (Huang di Nei Jing). This book described in detail the theory that food cooked in your stomach made a nutrient steam (the life force or "chi") which flowed thought the body along small invisible tubes, now known as the Acupuncture meridians. Because the tubes carried the steam-like chi, if it was blocked, the blocked area could swell and cause pain, while the organs below the blockage would wither from lack of nutrition. Insertion of a needle was thought to unblock the flow.
Over time Acupuncture developed as the points were mapped out, now numbering about 360 in all. New techniques were developed and the art of needling became more complex. The points are divided into 14 major meridians. Each meridian contains numerous points. Twelve of these are assigned to the Chinese organ systems, such as the Large Intestine meridian, the Liver meridian, and the Gall Bladder meridian. (The names of these "organ" systems are usually capitalized to distinguish them from the often very different Western medicine understanding of liver or large intestine.) The other two meridians are very important. One runs up the spine, and is called du mai (governing vessel), and the other runs up the front of your torso into the head area and is calle ren mai (conception vessel).
It is very fortunate that Acupuncture came to the West in modern times. This is because scientists now believe that diseases and injuries are healed by a complex set of biochemical responses involving signaling systems such as hormones and immune system cells. Studies have revealed that stimulating Acupuncture points is capable of inducing responses in immune, nerve and other cells, and this fact alone explains how and why Acupuncture works.
Numerous conditions identified by Western medicine often respond well to Acupuncture. Among these are anxiety, depression, chronic or acute pain, PMS, neuritis and neuralgia. Acupuncture can also be useful in treating hypertension, asthma, allergies, chronic fatigue, anxiety, fibromyalgia and many, many other conditions. Acupuncture is specific for immune system weakness.
For reasons not yet identified, not all persons respond equally well to the treatments. In general, pain disorders that involve severe tissue damage, such as sciatica caused by a ruptured disc, cannot be cured by Acupuncture (it will not repair the damaged disc). The severe pain, however, is often eased by Acupuncture treatments, sometimes for extended periods of time. As an adjunct to Western medical care Acupuncture can be used to keep the body's defenses strong and vital even in severe conditions such as cancer or diabetes.
A visit to your Acupuncturist generally follows a simple pattern, based upon Oriental traditions. On your first visit your Acupuncturist will probably question you extensively about your problems, as well as your general state of health. Some of the questions will be familiar, while others may seem unrelated to your problem. This is because in Chinese medical thought your mind, your emotions, your digestion and your muscles and bones are all interrelated and influence one another.
After questioning, the pulses on both wrists are examined and analyzed. In addition, your tongue, skin, hair, and muscle tone may be studied. The Acupuncturist then uses all this information to identify how your energy flow is affected, and to identify which energy meridian points need to be needled.
For the actual Acupuncture treatment, you will be asked to lie down on the treatment table. Your therapist will then insert needles after swabbing the points with alcohol pads. You will lay quietly during the treatment, and the Acupuncturist may return from time-to-time to check the needles. After 20-30 minutes the needles will be removed.
Treatments are usually give once or twice a week in groups of 3-6 treatments, called a series. Each visit consists of a brief intake and physical exam, followed by needle insertion. Depending on the problem, at least 3 visits are usually required to see if Acupuncture will be effective for you or not. Some problems can be require only a single visit or a single series, while more difficult problems may require several series over time. Visits and treatments are spaced further apart as the patient progresses until health is strong enough to discontinue treatments. Some patients see their acupuncturist a few times a year for an "energy tune-up."
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
I'm afraid of needles. Does Acupuncture hurt?
Don't worry. Acupuncture is used to quell pain, not cause it, and only a few people out of a thousand have any problem with the treatments. This is because the needles usually create only about as much pain as a mosquito bite, which lasts for only a second or so.
Can you tell me more about how it feels?
The very fine, disposable needles are inserted into specific points along your body and gently turned until you feel a "chi" sensation -a distinctive, tingling, warming or numbing sensation. From 1 to 30 needles may be inserted; the average, however, is 8 to 12. Some needles are immediately removed while others are left in for as long as 20 minutes. All needles are sterile and disposed after a single use.
The aftereffects of Acupuncture vary. Some people feel a sense of well being spreading throughout their bodies during the treatment and or immediately afterwards. Others may not experience such effects until after a few treatments. Because of these variations, it is recommended that new patients receive at least four treatments before joining the Acupuncturist to assess the value of the treatments.
What is the difference between Acupuncture and Acupressure?
Both are based upon the same philosophy and are both are effective. Acupuncture has a more powerful effect on pain, stimulating nerve tissue and causing biochemical changes, while acupressure is more effective at relaxing the entire musculoskeletal system.
How do I know that Acupuncture is not a placebo?
Dr. Konrad Streitberger, an anesthetist at the University of Heidelberg, invented a placebo needle to test this very question. His research team treated 52 patients for rotator cuff pain. About half of the patients were given real Acupuncture and the rest placebo. Those treated with real Acupuncture showed much greater pain relief. Acupuncture has also been used successfully to treat animals.
Is Acupuncture done the same way here as it is in China?
There are some differences. In China Acupuncture is part of the health care system knows as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which also includes herbal medicine treatment. All TCM physicians are trained in both modalities, and they go to school for at least five years full-time. In America schooling is usually 3-4 years, and concentrates on Acupuncture. Licensing requirements also vary from state to state. In California, for example, all Acupuncturists must study and pass an herbal medicine exam to get their license. Other differences include the fact that treatments are sometimes given in China on a daily or every other day schedule.
What exactly are Acupuncture points?
The best way to understand this is to experience it for yourself. Try pressing on these points:
1. Point 4 on the Large Intestine Meridian is located on the hand at the place between the base (bottom) of your thumb and first finger, the real fleshy area about an inch above your wrist. It's name is he gu, which means "valley point". If you feel around and firmly grasp the point, you will really feel it. It is used for toothache, headache, sinus pain and to reduce blood pressure. Try it yourself. Massage firmly for about 15-20 seconds several times per day on both hands.
2. Point 36 of the Stomach Meridian can be found by starting at the bottom of the knee and going down your shinbone about the distance of four fingers or so, then press around the area about an inch or so away from the bone, towards the little toe side. When you find it, it will be obvious (ouch). It will feel like it is right inside the rubbery tendon. This point is used for nausea and vomiting, as well as for anemia and immune system weakness. You can massage this point as just mentioned.
3. Pressing the bottom of your ears against your head, and then sliding your fingers towards the back of your neck about an inch or so will locate point 20 of the Gall Bladder Meridian. This point is very good for migraine headache, neck pain, tinnitus, and for relaxing eye tension.
Books to Learn More
Acupuncture: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know but Were Afraid to Ask by Gary F. Fleischman, (Charles Stein,1998). This popular introductory text is perfect for someone who just what to know more in an easy to read format.
Chinese Medicine: The Web that has no Weaver 2nd ed. by Ted Kaptchuk (Contemporary Books, 2000). This lively text by a skilled practitioner brings TCM to life and explains all the major theories. It is intermediate level.
The Foundations of Chinese Medicine by Giovanni Maciocia (Churchill Livingstone, 1989). This advanced text is written for professionals.
The California Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine will connect you to all major Acupuncture sites. You will find practitioner sites, organizations, schools, companies, publications and research.