What is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture. You may have heard of this treatment modality before and probably considered trying it. But, besides the insertion of thin needles into the body, do you know what acupuncture really is and how it works? Here, let us dig deeper into this ancient Chinese medicine-based approach, including what is acupuncture for, its contraindications, and side effects. We also included preparations that you might need before you schedule a treatment session and some pro-tips related to this natural complementary medical practice.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a popular alternative medicine and a key component of a 3,000-year-old healing technique. It involves the insertion of thin needles into specific targeted areas of the body. The specialized thin needles go through a person's skin at specific points, and to various depths.
Some studies support several claims that acupuncture can help in relieving pain, boost wellbeing, and may cure some illnesses such as blood pressure problems, headaches, and a wide range of other complaints.
What is acupuncture used for?
While the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) says that there is limited evidence for acupuncture's effectiveness in areas other than pain, many people claim that acupuncture can relieve discomfort and pain associated with a variety of conditions and diseases, including:
- Back pain
- Female infertility
- Frozen shoulder
- General pain
- Headaches, such as migraines and tension headaches
- Labour pain
- Menstrual cramps
- Nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy or surgery
- Neck pain
- Respiratory disorders, including allergic rhinitis
These are just some of the most commonly treated acupuncture indications. There are other therapeutic effects associated with acupuncture. Its effectiveness on pain has been validated by several literature reviews and clinical research. Furthermore, it is currently one of the most popular non-pharmaceutical treatment choices for pain against the opioid crisis.
How does acupuncture work?
Until today, acupuncture remains controversial to many, especially among Western medical physicians and scientists. And, how it specifically works in the body scientifically remains unclear. Some people claim it is effective because it balances the flow of vital energy, while others believe that it has a neurohormonal or neurological effect.
The neurohormonal reason is one of the major hypotheses that many people accept. It says that acupuncture works through the neurohormonal pathways of the body. Basically, a trained acupuncturist puts specialized needles through specific points in the body. This insertion of needles stimulates the nerve, which is responsible for sending and receiving signals to the brain. The brain, in turn, releases neural hormones like beta-Endorphins. They are proteins that are mainly synthesized by the pituitary gland located at the base of the brain. Once these hormones are released, it will induce feelings of euphoria and happiness, as well as increased pain threshold reducing the pain stimuli.
Another hypothesis is that by inserting a needle through an acupuncture point, the release of a chemical called adenosine can be released, which can help relieve pain. Yet another theory suggests that acupuncture reduces swelling or inflammation, which accompanies certain health conditions such as infection.
And, it does not end there because there is another research that placing a needle in acupuncture points stimulates the nerve to secrete a neuropeptide called nerve growth factor (NGF) that helps the nerve regenerate, and provide nutrition for its neurons.
The foundational concept of why acupuncture is done and how it works is by stimulating the acupuncture points to let the flow of energy continue by correcting imbalances or removing blockages to these points. These specific areas are termed as "acupuncture points".
What is an acupuncture point?
An acupuncture point is a defined area on the skin that relates to specific landmarks on the body. The discovery of these acupoints can be traced back to ancient times, where original Chinese pictographs indicated where these points are located.
Think of it like this; your body has certain points or holes in which your energy, called qi (pronounced as "chee") flows. There are hundreds, even thousands, of these points running throughout the body, which can be reliably detected with electrodermal measurements.
Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners say that there are at least 2,000 acupuncture points. On the other hand, the World Health Organization proposes that there are 361 acupuncture points, as stated on the Proposed Standard International Acupuncture Nomenclature Report.
Furthermore, according to the World Health Organization, acupuncture points are organized in various locations on each of the 14 major meridians. These meridians, otherwise known as the qi system or energy highway, can be mapped throughout the body. Along these energy highways, acupoints are located. One meridian can have one or multiple acupuncture points that are related to and may affect various organs. Modern CT scans even show micro-vessel cluster points that coincide with these points in the body.
The process of acupuncture
Acupuncturists have a variety of methods to activate acupuncture points – needles being the most common way.
What happens during an acupuncture treatment?
Before anything else, you will have a discussion with your acupuncturist. If you have body aches and pains, it is important that you tell it before the treatment.
Here's what happens during an acupuncture treatment:
You should be wearing loose-fitted clothing or clinic gowns, as you will have to partially expose certain areas of the body and disrobe in order to gain access to the acupuncture site.
Then, your acupuncturist will examine you and check meridian areas to determine which acupuncture points to use. He or she will use disposable, hair-thin, pre-packaged, and sterile acupuncture needles. The needles will be inserted through your skin at various depths, ranging from a fraction of an inch to one or two inches. After insertion of the needles, they stay in place for a couple of minutes or up to twenty minutes.
Depending on your condition, you may need more than one session. And if that is the case, the acupuncturist may use different needling techniques and various combinations of acupoints.
In addition, acupuncturists may also use acupressure (direct pressure with thumbs or fingers), cupping (suction through the use of special cups), friction, and heat. If necessary, an electroacupuncture may be performed where safe electromagnetic energy impulses are used to stimulate the pressure points associated with unwanted symptoms.
Each of these treatment modalities has its own purpose and particular benefit for the client. All of them also work under the same fundamentals and principles of Chinese traditional medicine.
What does an acupuncture needle insertion feel like?
When an acupuncture needle is inserted, a slight prick may be felt. Some say it is much less than a prick compared to an injection or when blood is drawn for a blood test. Others also say that they feel tingling or mild soreness after the acupuncture needles have been inserted. In some cases, clients report a feeling of slight heaviness or numbness. This sensation is termed "Deqi" (pronounced "duh chee”), which means that the treatment is working. During the acupuncture procedure, you may also be required to say yes and confirm if you feel these sensations or Deqi.
Is acupuncture safe?
This is one of the frequently asked questions about acupuncture.
In general, acupuncture is safe. But like other medical or surgical treatment procedures, there are risks associated.
But here's what you should know:
- Acupuncture uses disposable needles that are under clean and sterile conditions, and it is highly unusual to get an infection from the needles.
- One of the advantages of this treatment modality is that the incidence of adverse effects is lower than that of several medications or other accepted medical procedures for the same health conditions.
- If you have a competent, highly trained, certified acupuncture practitioner, the risks associated with acupuncture will substantially be lower.
- Disposable needles (one-time use) are now the practice standard for acupuncture, so the risk of infection is minimal.
What are the common side effects of acupuncture:
- Bruising on the insertion site
- Minor bleeding where the needles were inserted
What are the contraindications for acupuncture:
Not everyone is a good candidate for acupuncture. There are some contraindications involved. For instance, you may not be able to undergo acupuncture if you:
- Are pregnant
Pregnant women, especially those who are almost due for delivery, are not recommended to undergo acupuncture. Some methods used during acupuncture may stimulate labour, which could result in early or premature delivery.
- Have or at risk for bleeding issues
If you are taking blood thinners or have any condition such as bleeding disorders, your chances of bruising or bleeding from the insertion of needles increase.
- Have a pacemaker.
You cannot undergo electroacupuncture if you have a pacemaker. Applying mild electrical pulses using the acupuncture needles can interfere with your pacemaker's function.
Frequently Asked Questions About Acupuncture
If it is your first time to talk about acupuncture therapy, you will have questions for sure. So, here are some of these important questions to help you know more about this therapy.
Does acupuncture hurt?
The short answer is, it depends on a person’s pain threshold. While some people feel nothing at all during acupuncture; others may experience a brief moment of discomfort when the needle goes through the skin. It can also be followed by a mild sensation of numbness, tingling, travelling warmth, cramping, or heaviness.
But here’s the deal, the needles used in acupuncture are about twenty-five to fifty times thinner than the commonly used syringe called hypodermic needle that laboratory/medical technicians use to extract fluids from the body or inject substances into it. So, imagine how thin acupuncture needles are that they can even go inside a hypodermic needle since they are 25 to 50 times smaller.
Also, you should know that there is little sensitivity as the acupuncture needles are inserted.
After that, the needles will be left in place for about twenty to forty minutes.
In fact, some people find acupuncture therapy extremely uplifting and relaxing. Others even fall asleep due to the calmness the therapy causes for the duration of the treatment.
However, some conditions may respond better when a thicker acupuncture needle gauge is used.
In summary, remember that it’s normal for someone to experience a little discomfort or soreness during or after an acupuncture treatment.
If you are worried, just let your acupuncturist know immediately if you feel uncomfortable. You should also talk about any sensitivity you might have or if you have a phobia on needles. He or she can use thinner needles and be gentler during the treatment. So, always speak up and let your practitioner know how you are feeling before, during, or after the treatment!
How do you choose an acupuncturist?
Acupuncture works! But of course, your acupuncture experience will depend largely on how the acupuncture provider you choose does the therapy.
That is why the first thing you should do is to find an acupuncture provider that best suits your needs. Chances are that if you fully like and trust your acupuncturist, your experience with acupuncture therapy will be more promising and positive.
If it is your first time selecting an acupuncturist, start by getting to know about the experience and training of the acupuncturist. Then familiarize yourself with what to expect from the acupuncture treatment. The clearer you know about who it is that will be treating you, his or her experience and training, and exactly what the treatment entails, the more you will be able to feel more calm and relaxed during the session and benefit from this form of health care.
Besides needle insertion, what are some other treatment techniques that can be performed during acupuncture?
Cupping is one of the techniques that an acupuncturist can do during a therapy session. It is a procedure where a bamboo jar or glass cup is used as a suction. It is applied onto the body and left to sit there for about ten minutes. It is believed that cupping techniques can relieve swelling, and stimulate blood circulation. It can greatly enhance the effects of Electro-acupuncture or acupuncture treatment. Specialists use cupping for various conditions such as back pain, common colds, influenza, neck pain, and shoulder pain.
Electro-Acupuncture is a specialized form of acupuncture. It uses small electrical currents applied through the acupuncture needles. Sometimes termed as electro-stimulation, the use of small electrical currents is often used in conjunction with acupuncture to enhance the effects of the treatment. Research has proven that it can decrease pain, significantly reduce inflammation, speed up tissue healing, and help reduce edema and swelling.
Gua Sha is one of the East Asian healing techniques where the skin is rubbed using a round-edged instrument in downward strokes. It is used for many issues including back pain, common colds, influenza, neck pain, and shoulder pain.
Moxibustion is a form of healing that uses a Chinese herb named mugwort or Artemisia Vulgaris. This herb is used to apply heat to a specific acupuncture point. Therapists perform moxibustion to treat certain health issues as well as arthritis and pain. Moxa sticks (which look like cigars) are sometimes placed onto the handle of acupuncture needles, which allow deeper penetration of heat.
Tui Na is an ancient technique from the traditional system of Chinese style massage or physical therapy. Therapists use Tui na in conjunction with acupuncture to improve and perform treatments for a variety of musculoskeletal conditions.
How many acupuncture treatments do people need?
Regrettably, there is no one definitive answer to this question. Because the length, frequency, or the number of acupuncture sessions vary from person to another depending on the client’s age and health, the conditions being treated, its severity, and how the body responds to acupuncture. And since acupuncture is a natural medicine that supports the body to make changes, it can take a long, gradual process.
But, if you really want to know how many acupuncture sessions you might need, consult with an experienced practitioner about your health and current condition. He or she can offer the best estimate for the length of your acupuncture treatment.
In general, acute issues need less time, duration, and frequency of treatment. For instance, if your concern is just an acute sprain, it may require only one or two acupuncture sessions, whereas a more chronic or severe condition may require a couple or several dozen treatments.
How long will it take for acupuncture treatments to work?
The benefits and the positive effects of acupuncture treatments are generally seen after the first few treatments. But, if you are being treated for chronic conditions or infertility or menstrual problem (in females), you need to allow for a few months in order for the body to respond. And in some cases, the appointments will be scheduled further and further apart once you have achieved an optimal response to the treatment.
How often should an individual be treated with acupuncture?
Again, how often acupuncture is done depends on what the treatment is for and the treatment plan of the practitioner. It is common for acupuncture sessions to be scheduled once or twice a week at the beginning of the therapy and then once every other week to obtain an optimal response.
Other people see acupuncturists for about two to five times a year for a maintenance "tune-up" or a "balancing" treatment. It can help prevent a disease, promote health, improve energy and maintain vitality.
Complementing Acupuncture With Complete Nutrition
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