A lot of times when people ask me what I do for a living, and I proceed to tell them I’m an acupuncturist, they look at me with a blank look, and sometimes it’s a bit on the baffled or leery side of things. Though I’m loath to prattle on about something if the person isn’t interested, I wish at these times that people would ask me more about it. I would explain in plain language that spelled out what it was and what it could do for them. Something along these lines……
Acupuncture is the act of putting needles into someone to make them feel better. It’s a very old medical system that came out of Asia and was practiced for thousands of years. Though ancient and mysterious, it’s increasingly used all over the world by all types of people in the modern Western world. You don’t have to believe or even have interest in “how it really works” for it to really work for you. You also don’t have to be Asian or engage in an alternative lifestyle to reap the benefits.
Acupuncture needles stimulate a person’s qi. Qi doesn’t have a perfect translation into English, but let’s settle for the life force, or more simply, the energy that flows through the body. If a person’s qi is flowing smoothly, with nothing blocking or disrupting its flow, and if they have enough of it, then that person is in good health. In a person suffering from pain or illness that natural pattern of qi flow has some deficiency or imbalance. Acupuncture needles aim to adjust the circulation of qi, correct the imbalance and restore the body to its rightful balance, which will mend the patient and relieve the pain. At first glance it’s a lovely and basic way of seeing health, but don’t let it’s simplicity fool you. Acupuncturists use a considerable amount of education and understanding to apply theories and devise a point prescription specifically for you. It’s extremely effective at relieving pain and nudging the body back from all types of miserable diseases. Below is a shortened list from the World Health Organization (WHO):
The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes the use of acupuncture in the treatment of a wide range of common illnesses including:
Upper Respiratory System
Common Cold and Flu
Bronchial asthma (Most effective in children and uncomplicated conditions.)
Central Retinitis Myopia (in children)
Cataracts (without complications)
Post Extraction Pain
Acute and Chronic Pharyngitis
Spasms of esophagus
Acute and Chronic Gastritis
Chronic Duodenal Ulcer (pain relief)
Acute Duodenal Ulcer (without complications)
Acute and Chronic Colitis
Acute Bacillary Dysentery
Neurologic and Musculoskeletal Disorders
Headache and Migraine
Facial Palsy (early stage, i.e., within 3-6 months)
Pareses Following a Stroke
Sequelae of Poliomyelitis (early stage, i.e., within 6 months)
Neurogenic Bladder Dysfunction
Nocturnal Enuresis (bedwetting)
Low Back Pain
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Back and Knee Pain
Sports Injuries and Pains
Reproductive & Gynecological Conditions
Dysmenorrhea (menstrual cramps)
Spotting and Excessive Bleeding
Amenorrhea (Loss of Menstrual Period)
Mental Emotional Problems
Sources: 1. NIH, Acupuncture, Nov. 3–5, 1997, Vol. 15, No. 52. World Health Organization. Viewpoint on Acupuncture. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization, 1979.
The idea of having many needles inserted causes a large portion of the human population to run screaming from acupuncture. Bad memories of painful shots dance like evil sugar plums in their head. I wish there was a different vocabulary word for the tool we use, as it bears little resemblance to the hypodermic needle that we’re all far more familiar with. Our needles are short, sometimes only a half inch long, and they’re very tiny. So tiny, in fact, that you can fit over 20 acupuncture needles into one hypodermic needle. So tiny, in fact, that it’s hard to photograph an acupuncture treatment, because unless the light strikes them just right, you can’t see the needles.
When an acupuncturist inserts a needle, it doesn’t feel like a flu shot. It might hurt or feel sharp for a moment, and then the moment is gone. Many times the patient isn’t aware the needle has gone in, until they feel the “qi sensation”. Qi sensation doesn’t happen for every patient and it doesn’t happen at every point. Sometimes you feel nothing. But you might feel an aching sensation in your body, or a feeling of movement near the needle, or a feeling of warmth or swelling. That just means the needles are working, increasing your circulation and starting to move qi. Very shortly after the acupuncturist starts to put in the needles, most people start feeling relaxed. Often they’re dozing before I even finish with the needles. You lay on the table for 20 minutes to 30 minutes, sleeping or relaxing, and then the needles come out. Acupuncture is naturally relaxing and calming, and most people come out feeling that way. A few people tell me they feel more energized than relaxed, but the expected feeling is relief and relaxation. It’s important to ease yourself back into your day, shake off the sleepiness and take care when you get back in your car or on your bike.
How do I, myself, react when I’m receiving an acupuncture? I’m a huge baby that howls when some needles are going in. Maybe I have a lot of stagnant qi. Maybe my body is more sensitive than the average person. Whatever the reason, the experience is momentary, and I know that by the time all the needles are in, I will be drifting into the most restful sleep, like five naps in one; I also know that the needles are doing important work. It’s a little bit of discomfort for a huge benefit. Though most people have an easier time than I do, my own sensitivity allows me to understand and accommodate anyone’s fears. So don’t expect to feel discomfort, but do feel comfortable speaking up if a needle is uncomfortable or you can’t relax with it in. On the flip side, understand that even if it feels tender going in it isn’t an indication that the needle is harming your body or that something’s wrong. Take a deep breath and see how you feel after insertion, if the sensation starts to recede, you can relax.
Acupuncturists who receive their education in California are trained in both acupuncture and herbal medicine in fairly equal measure. It’s true, our job titles are misleading. Acupuncturists can perform acupuncture AND prescribe herbal remedies. Herbs work internally to do many of the things that needles can do. Combining acupuncture and herbal medicine often provides a more powerful and effective treatment. Taking herbs throughout the week can help extend the benefits of the acupuncture treatment until you get to your next appointment. Not everyone needs them, not everyone agrees to take them, but they can do some things that needles can’t sometimes, and for people with severe needle phobia it’s a way to experience the medicine without the trauma.
Hey you skeptics, it’s your turn!
Western World Definition:
Acupuncture needles increase circulation and reduce inflammation. Acupuncture points reach sensory receptors that communicate to nerves that then transmit impulses to the hypothalamic-pituitary system at the base of the brain. These glands release neurotransmitters and endorphins. The substances released act to relax the body and regulate various neurotransmitters and hormones. Some of the physiological effects observed throughout the body include increased circulation, decreased inflammation, relief from pain, relief of muscle spasms and increased T-cell count which stimulates the immune system.
Our partners in the world of Western medicine have created and conducted these studies, though with increasing input and participation from acupuncturists. This is incredibly helpful, as some people view acupuncture as fairy dust hogwash, and aren’t content to hear about a strange and foreign medical paradigm. This is completely natural, and I’m glad you’re critical and serious about safeguarding your health and your wallet. Both are important! So I am happy to explain acupuncture and your individual treatment plan from either an Eastern or Western perspective when I can.
Many people possess the belief that acupuncture is unproven and not evidence-based medicine. The truth is that numerous studies have shown the benefit from a Western medical standpoint, the CDC and WHO recognize and approve acupuncture, and the U.S. Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and others approve of the practice of acupuncture and push for wider use and availability. Hopefully this brief introduction into Western medicine’s exploration into acupuncture has allayed some fears and answered some questions.