Most people today have heard about the health benefits of acupuncture, especially that it can be used to treat pain. What is acupuncture…how does it work… what can it be used to treat…how can I find a good practitioner? These are just some of the questions I explore below.
The practice of acupuncture has been around for thousands of years, and is considered one of oldest surviving medicines on earth. It originated in China three thousand years ago, and spread slowly to Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Tibet, Europe, and eventually North America. As many insurance companies now cover acupuncture visits, its familiarity and accessibility continues to expand. Once a foreign, “alternative” medicine, acupuncture is now taught in over 50 accredited schools throughout the United States, and is slowly weaving its way into the modern medical system.
What Is Acupuncture All About?
A branch of Chinese medicine, acupuncture is founded upon the concept of maintaining the uninterrupted flow of “qi” (pronounced “chee”). 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.
When a river is blocked, and water cannot pass properly, an environmental imbalance is created. Terrain becomes altered, and flooding or erosion may occur. The same principle applies when qi flow is obstructed in our bodies. Blocked qi can manifest as headaches, joint and muscle pain, high blood pressure, fatigue, and nausea, to name a few symptoms. To remove the blockage, an acupuncturist will carefully insert a very thin, sterile needle to stimulate an acupuncture point so qi can move freely.
An acupuncture treatment usually involves the stimulation of multiple acupuncture points along the body’s meridians. Inserting acupuncture needles, with diameters of a hair, typically elicits a mild “dull” or “tug” sensation that indicates a connection to qi. Needles are left in for approximately 10-45 minutes, or even longer depending on patient comfort and treatment intention. In other systems of acupuncture, such as Five Element acupuncture, needles are inserted and immediately removed to “grab” the qi. Japanese-style acupuncturists lightly tap needles into the skin’s superficial layer. This gentle technique allows the qi to arrive at the needle, instead of trying to “grab” the qi.
Other means of balancing qi flow include specific food recommendations, herbal therapies, proper breathing, chanting, acupressure, and practicing Qigong, Tai Chi, and meditation. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese often practice Qigong while barefoot. They build their stores of qi through direct contact with the earth and literally “ground” themselves. Another popular and effective method of moving qi is moxibustion, the burning of moxa, or the herb Artemisia vulgaris, on acupuncture points. Just as one might apply oil to a rusty door hinge to decrease restriction, an acupuncturist might use moxibustion to warm up an acupuncture point and gently correct a qi imbalance so energy can flow freely. Utilizing all of the abovementioned techniques on a daily basis can build and optimize qi function in the body, and ultimately improve quality of life.
What Can Acupuncture Treat?
People often ask, “what can acupuncture treat?” To answer this important question we have to think beyond the Western, or “modern,” medicine model, which treats symptoms of disease. Through a Western medicine lens, it is difficult – if not impossible – to list off specific conditions that acupuncture can “fix.” Acupuncture, rather, corrects imbalances caused by stagnation or deficiency of qi which can eventually cause more apparent symptoms of dis-ease.
Health, in Chinese medicine, is more than just the absence of symptoms. With its ancient origins, acupuncture takes into account all aspects of living, including environmental factors, diet choices, exercise, emotional well being, and physical health. Signs and symptoms of disease are like a fire alarm going off in a burning building: treating them only silences the alarm without addressing the raging fire.
Unfortunately, the efficacy of acupuncture is difficult to “test” using modern medicinal research methods. Most Western medicine research focuses on how drug A fares to drug B, and rarely looks at how social and environmental factors can affect people. More importantly, researchers are not yet able to measure qi. Coupled with acupuncture’s non-local, systemic effects on qi in the body, research and funding limitations make it difficult to understand acupuncture and reproduce its effects.
Despite such challenges acupuncture faces in the research world, studies have shown some of its benefits. The World Health Organization (WHO) published a report in 2003 on the effectiveness of acupuncture in treating the following symptoms, diseases, and conditions:
- Acute bacillary dysentery
- Adverse reactions to chemotherapy, and/or radiotherapy
- Allergic rhinitis
- Biliary colic
- Essential hypertension
- Induction of childbirth and correction of malposition of fetus
- Shoulder inflammation
- Nausea and vomiting including morning sickness
- Pain in the episgastrium, neck, back, elbow, knee
- Pain during dentistry and after operations
- Primary dysmenorrhea
- Primary hypotension
- Renal colic
- Rheumatoid arthritis
How Do I Find an Acupuncturist?
Another common question people ask is “how I do find a qualified acupuncture practitioner?” In the United States, various health care providers including licensed acupuncturists (LAc), naturopathic doctors (ND), medical doctors (MD), chiropractors (DC), and dentists (DDS) perform acupuncture. Each state has different laws regarding licensure and training requirements, and some states, including Florida and California, legally regard acupuncturists as primary care providers. The scope of practice and practitioner qualification, therefore, varies greatly from state to state. Those who receive a Master of Science in Acupuncture (MSA) or a Master of Science in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (MSAOM) degree, both of which take, on average, three years to obtain, receive extensive high-level training in acupuncture. Some practitioners receive additional training to obtain a Doctorate Degree in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (DAOM). If you are seeking out a licensed acupuncturist in your area, check online at www.nccaom.org and click on “find a practitioner.” Remember, word of mouth can be just as important as a list of credentials, so ask your family and friends if they recommend a good acupuncturist.
As more people demand a holistic approach to treating disease, it is imperative to include acupuncture in the current medical model. It is no coincidence that acupuncture is one of the oldest systems of medicine in the world, and has survived for so long because of its success in helping relieve human suffering. One day you may visit a reputable acupuncturist and wonder why he or she is looking at your tongue and feeling your pulse. Rest assured, this system of medicine is profoundly powerful.
World Heath Organization. Acupuncture: Review and Analysis of Reports of Controlled Clinical Trials. Geneva, 2003.
© Stephen Sinatra, MD and Drew Sinatra, ND. All rights reserved.