By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Why would anyone voluntarily submit themselves to being poked with a bunch of needles? Doesn’t it hurt? How could acupuncture possibly be good for my health? If the mere thought of acupuncture brings up such questions for you, these eight acupuncture facts can help ease your mind.
1. Acupuncture History Goes WAY Back…
Acupuncture has been a respected form of medical treatment in China for more than 2,500 years. In fact, some scientists believe that bones were carved into long sharp acupuncture “needles” as far back as 6000 BC. Over the centuries, it became one of the standard medical therapies used throughout the Eastern parts of the world, especially China. Massage, herbs, and diet are also traditionally used to support and complement acupuncture therapy.
2. It All Comes Down to Acupuncture Points
The first thing most people want to know about acupuncture is, “How does it work?” Well, it all comes down to acupuncture points. During an acupuncture treatment, ultra-fine needles are inserted into acupuncture points throughout the body. These points are near the skin’s surface, and they generally have a high concentration of nerve endings, lymphatics, capillaries, and mast cells, which are all able to trigger biochemical changes in the body with physiological effects. Sometimes the effects are very subtle, other times, very dramatic.
By inserting a needle into an acupuncture point, sensory receptors are stimulated, and a chain reaction occurs. The nerves are then stimulated by the sensory receptor to send signals to the body’s adrenal, pituitary, and hypothalamic systems. This complex system of interactions between these glands, your hormones, and your brain is responsible for the optimum function of organ systems throughout the body.
When specific acupuncture points are triggered, certain substances are released that help the body relax while regulating the production of serotonin, a hormone associated with happiness and a sense of well being. Acupuncture is thought to also activate the body’s natural analgesic capabilities which lessen pain, often to a clinically significant degree. Circulation may also be improved and muscle spasms can be eased, making acupuncture an excellent way to relieve pain naturally. Acupuncture also supports immune system function.
3. “Qi” is the Key
“Qi” is a term that we often hear in relation to acupuncture, but many people have no idea what it really means. Qi (which is actually pronounced “chee”) is a Chinese word that basically means energy. In the Chinese language, it can be used to describe a lot of different things in many different ways. As Dr. Drew Sinatra, a naturopathic physician and acupuncturist, writes in Acupuncture in the Modern World:
“Qi characterizes the life-force of the body and qi energy flows throughout the body along meridians, similar to how blood flows through arteries and veins. The body contains 12 main meridians of qi energy that run from head to toe, where most acupuncture points are located. Manipulating qi to promote health is at the heart of all Eastern medicine.”
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), qi is used as a metaphor to describe metabolic function. So, when a practitioner refers to your “heart qi,” he is simply referring to your heart and cardiovascular function.
3. Acupuncturists Undergo Extensive Training
Sometimes, people have the misconception that acupuncture is dangerous because practitioners don’t have adequate training. Thankfully, that is not the case at all. Acupuncturists in the United States are required to meet rigorous standards, just like any other medical professional.
There are accredited acupuncture schools throughout the country, and most states require that practitioners complete at least 3,500 hours of formal training. This extensive training usually takes about four years to complete and earns the student a Master’s Degree in Acupuncture or Traditional Chinese Medicine.
But it doesn’t end there. Before the student can become a licensed practitioner, he or she must also pass a written and practical state or national board exam. In some cases, the student will also go on to earn a Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Degree, which requires an additional two and a half years (2,500 hours) of training.
4. Anyone Can Benefit from Acupuncture
You don’t have to be sick to receive benefits from acupuncture. Acupuncture benefits health and wellness in many ways by reducing stress and improving overall body function and wellness. It can boost your immune system to help you stay healthy, and if you do have a medical condition, it can often be used in conjunction with other medical treatments. Leading acupuncture clinics and MDs often work together to help patients with a variety of ailments, from fertility issues to depression and anxiety. Other conditions that can be improved with acupuncture include lower back pain, migraines, nausea, tension headaches, and chronic or acute pain.
5. Acupuncture is Safe
When you see a qualified practitioner, acupuncture is a safe and natural way to improve your health. As with any medical procedure, there are some possible side effects associated with acupuncture. Most people feel energized after an acupuncture session, while others feel very relaxed or even sleepy. In very rare cases, some patients have reported dizziness, nausea, bruising, or an allergic reaction after their treatment.
6. Every Patient is Treated as an Individual
When you begin seeing an acupuncturist, you will be asked for a complete medical history, as well as your diet and lifestyle habits. The practitioner will want to know about your stress levels, sleep habits, and any health concerns you may have. You might even be asked about what types of food you do or don’t like, how your appetite is, and how your body responds to changes in temperatures.
The acupuncturist will also conduct a physical exam. He or she will probably note the color of your tongue, your complexion, and your pulse in three different places. This information will be used to determine the health of your internal organ systems. The practitioner will then create a personalized treatment plan that includes a series of acupuncture sessions. Chinese herbs, massage therapy, stress management techniques (such as yoga or Tai Chi), and diet and lifestyle changes may also be recommended as part of your treatment plan.
7. Acupuncture Doesn’t Hurt
Most patients do not experience pain during their treatment. In fact, a lot of people find that the treatments are very relaxing, and they often fall asleep during the session. Some patients will feel a slight pinch or ache as the needle is inserted in a sensitive area. If you do experience discomfort or pain during your treatment, tell your practitioner right away.
Acupuncture is an ancient and respected form of medical treatment. If you are looking for a safe, natural non-invasive way to improve your health, acupuncture might be for you. Now that you know more about it, why not give it a try?
This article was co-authored by Donna Maurer, a health writer who formerly wrote for an alternative medicine clinic. A longtime advocate for acupuncture, Donna recommends trying The Yinova Center, her favorite acupuncture clinic in the greater NYC area.
- National Institutes of Health (NIH). Consensus Development Conference on Acupuncture. Consensus.nih.gov, Nov 3-5, 1997.
- Dr. Anaya Mandal, MD; Acupuncture History; News-Medical.net. Last accessed May 30, 2019.
- The College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Website. What to Expect When Visiting an Acupuncturist. Ctcmpanl.ca. Last accessed May 30, 2019.
- Thake E. What Do I Look for in an Acupuncturist? YinovaCenter.com. Last accessed May 30, 2019.
© 2019 Stephen Sinatra, M.D. All rights reserved.