Acupuncture is among the oldest healing practices in the world. As part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), acupuncture aims to restore and maintain health through the stimulation of specific points on the body. In the United States, where practitioners incorporate healing traditions from China, Japan, Korea, and other countries, acupuncture is considered part of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).
Acupuncture involves the insertion of extremely thin needles through your skin, to various depths at strategic points on your body. Acupuncture originated in China thousands of years ago, but over the past few decades its popularity has grown significantly in the United States. American visitors to China in the 1970s brought back firsthand reports of patients undergoing major surgery using acupuncture as their sole form of anesthesia. Since then, tens of thousands of treatments are now performed in this country each year for many types of conditions such as back pain, headaches, infertility, stress, and many other illnesses. Although scientists don’t fully understand how or why acupuncture works, some studies indicate that it may provide a number of medical benefits.
Yin and Yang
The theory of acupuncture in Chinese medicine is that health is a harmonious balance of yin and yang within the body. Particularly important in acupuncture is the free flow of Qi, a difficult-to-translate concept that saturates Chinese philosophy and is commonly translated as “vital energy”. Qi is immaterial and hence yang; its yin, material counterpart is Blood (capitalized to distinguish it from physiological blood, and very roughly equivalent to it). Acupuncture treatment regulates the flow of Qi and Blood, tonifying where there is deficiency, draining where there is excess, and promoting free flow where there is stagnation. The Chinese say, “no pain, no blockage; no blockage, no pain.”
Many patients claim to experience the sensations of stimulus known in Chinese as de qi (“obtaining the Qi” or “arrival of the Qi”). This kind of sensation was historically considered to be evidence of effectively locating the desired point.
Traditional Chinese Medicine treats the human body as a whole and that involves several “systems of function” (heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, etc.). Disease is understood as a loss of balance of Yin, Yang, Qi and Blood. Acupuncture treatment of disease is performed by modifying the activity of one or more systems of function through the activity of needles, pressure, heat, etc. on sensitive parts of the body called “acupuncture points”. This is referred to in TCM as treating “patterns of disharmony.”
What happens during an acupuncture session?
The therapy usually involves a series of weekly or biweekly treatments in the office. It’s normal to have up to 12 treatments in total. Although each practitioner has his/her own style, each visit typically includes an exam and an assessment of your current condition, the insertion of needles, and a discussion about self-care tips. The visit usually lasts about thirty minutes.
You’ll lie down on a comfortable table before the needles are placed. The practitioner may have you lie on your side, face-up, or face-down depending on where the needles are to go. Practitioners should use a new set of disposable needles taken from a sealed package for each patient and should swab treatment sites with alcohol or another disinfectant before inserting needles. Generally the procedure is not painful, but you may feel a brief, sharp sensation when each needle is inserted. Once the needles are inserted, they’re usually left in place for 5 to 20 minutes.
It is normal for the practitioner on your first visit to ask you at length about your health condition, lifestyle and behavior. He/she will want to obtain a complete picture of your treatment needs. Inform the practitioner about all treatments and medications you are taking as well as all medical conditions you have. People experience acupuncture differently. Some feel energized by treatment while others feel relaxed.
How Safe is Acupuncture?
Relatively few complications from the use of acupuncture have been reported to the FDA, in light of the millions of people treated each year and the number of acupuncture needles used. Still, complications have resulted from inadequate sterilization of needles and from improper delivery of treatments. New, disposable needles should always be used. Treatments, when not delivered properly, can cause serious adverse effects so it is wise to choose a qualified practitioner. Ask for a referral from someone you know or your doctor, or even a national acupuncture organization (find them on the web). Also, you should check a practitioner’s credentials. Most states require a license to practice acupuncture.
The practice of acupuncture has been used for thousands of years so that should say something for its effectiveness. Modern clinical trials have found it to be beneficial in treating headache, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia, myofascial pain, osteoarthritis, lower back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, pain relief, relief of withdrawal symptoms in smokers who are quitting, nausea related to chemotherapy, pain from kidney stones, and asthma.