Acupuncture is an integrative medical specialty that can heal the body. Historically, Chinese medical doctors have explained that acupuncture helps to smooth and balance the “energy flow” in the body by placing pins at specific points (also referred to as acupuncture points).
Nowadays, research has shown that this “energy flow” is actually several types of electrical circulation and changes in ion gradients in the body. When these changes happen, blood vessels dilate to improve circulation, respiration slows and expands, nerve function improves, and there are measurable changes in our hormones.
It works in a number of ways:
- Stimulates neurohormonal pathways: Acupuncture stimulates nerves to signal the release of “feel good” chemicals in the brain (endorphins). The stimulated nerves are not always located at the site of injury or discomfort. This is why you can receive acupuncture in your ankle to relieve neck pain. In many cases, different nerves communicate to the same point in the brain, so stimulating them is like bouncing a satellite signal all around in the body.
- Reduces pro-inflammatory markers: Certain acupuncture points in the body have been proven to reduce inflammation everywhere in the body by decreasing the number of pro-inflammatory markers.
The interesting thing is that the relay of signals from the site of acupuncture to the brain is faster than nerve conductivity itself. We have more to learn about how acupuncture works, but that it does work is clear.
If your only familiarity with being “poked” is getting a vaccination or blood drawn at the doctor’s office, then it makes sense you might be concerned about pain. The short and very general answer should help ease your mind a bit: acupuncture is not painful.
While you may feel a brief sensation at the acupuncture site, it will last perhaps a fraction of a second and then disappear. Why? Acupuncture pins may share the general shape of a needle, but that is where the similarities end. At 2.8mm, needles for vaccinations and blood draws are much larger than acupuncture pins. Acupuncture’s slender filaments are just .25mm, the width of a human hair. Where the tips of needles are sharp and designed to puncture, acupuncture pins are blunt and meant to ease into the spaces in your skin.
Acupuncture treatments are often so relaxing that many people fall asleep during their visit. If you do feel a sensation, it may be mildly achy. For some acupuncture points, the feeling may be intense, but it should last only a breath or two.
Yes, acupuncture is recognized as a safe medical approach. Acupuncture pins are single-use, sterilized, FDA-approved medical devices. When used by a properly trained acupuncturist, acupuncture is a completely safe procedure. In general, it’s important to choose an acupuncturist who has completed a medical degree that includes 4,000 hours of training devoted to acupuncture and Chinese Medicine. They’ll have the expertise to ensure you have a safe and effective session.
The only side effect that happens with any frequency is an occasional bruise. Sometimes people report feeling slightly lightheaded after a treatment, especially if they haven’t eaten in a long time. This feeling is temporary and often relieved with proper rest and hydration after treatment.
Placebos have a long history in complicating the outcomes of medical research. It can be challenging to separate what outcomes are due to the medical treatment and which outcomes are simply the body healing because the mind believes the treatment effective.
Placebo studies have been difficult to conduct in acupuncture, in particular, because there are so many mechanisms of action. Since acupuncture affects the body in many different ways, even “sham” acupuncture (fake/placebo acupuncture) may still produce a positive medical effect in the body.
Even taking the placebo effect into consideration, acupuncture has had better long-term outcomes for a variety of conditions than surgery, prescriptions drugs, chiropractic, and physical therapy. Acupuncture is a safe, side effect-free treatment that produces good results. In the end, that’s the outcome that matters most!
Qi (pronounced “chee”) is an important part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), acupuncture, and martial arts. These systems are over 3,000 years old and rooted in an ancient practice, so the vocabulary might be confusing. Whether using modern scientific descriptions or the words of TCM, it’s important to note that both systems agree that our bodies depend on the electrical conductivity of our muscles and positive and negative ions in all aspects of our physiology. It is this electrical conductivity that makes acupuncture work.
At the most basic definition, qi can be described as your energy or life force. There are 14 types of qi described in ancient texts. Each type of qi is organized by which part of the body is targeted and its density.
On one end of the spectrum is the bones and other solid aspects of our biology. On the other end is the immune neurological systems. Further still is the electrical conductivity of the muscles and fascia.
The least-dense aspects of the spectrum of qi concerns our endocrine system as it relates to our mental and emotional states. As it extends further, it relates to our experience of spirituality.
Modern science looks at the conduction of electricity through the body and how acupuncture pins affect it. Scientists refer to how qi effects the body as the acupuncture “mechanisms of action.” How does electricity in the form of nerve pulses move through the body? Where do they become blocked, and how can acupuncture release those blocks?
Our bodies store electrical charges. You have experienced this when you get a static electric shock. Sometimes those electrical charges get stuck in ways that cause disease or dysfunction in the body. This is where acupuncture comes in. Through careful placements of pins, acupuncture balances the electric charge in the body (the qi).
Modern science has found that targeting these specific points in the body, it acts as a nociceptive stimulation that leads to the activation of the nerve-endocrine-immune systems. This activation helps the body heal at sites of injury and pain. Effectively, it increases blood flow and circulation to injured areas and changes the electrical current that is the foundation of our biology.
Acupuncture is unique in that it produces changes in all body systems, including the musculoskeletal, immune, endocrine, neurological, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems. You can feel these changes as you relax during and after your treatments.
Acupuncture meridians are the channels along which qi (energy) travels through your body.
There are 12 primary meridians. You can picture meridians as a circuit, each connected to the next. Along each meridian are acupuncture points. Each meridian travels through our muscles from our fingers and toes to the depths of our organs. Or, meridians can be pictured as the roadways that crisscross a map, with cars as the qi moving along them.
Modern science has several theories to describe meridians. One theory is that these meridians relate to the fascia in our body. Fascia is the connective tissue that wraps around and weaves through all of our organs and muscles. It is an excellent conductor of electricity. The meridians can help move electricity more freely though the body across these areas.
Your first acupuncture visit includes a comprehensive health evaluation to determine your individual health needs. This includes a physical exam and a complete health history. Based on your symptoms, your acupuncturist will be able to recommend a proper treatment plan to address your health goals.
Once your assessment is complete, you will lie on the table to receive treatment. How many pins you receive, and their placement, depends on what is medically appropriate for you. At The WellBridge Clinic, we typically guide our patients through three stages of treatment:
- Symptom management or relief care: This is when our team is focused on finding relief from symptoms. During this period, our job here is also to identify the pattern of dysfunction that led to your symptoms in the first place.
- Corrective care: During this stage, our goal is to fix any underlying dysfunction, with symptoms becoming less frequent and less severe.
- Maintenance care: Once we move into maintenance, we reduce the frequency of visits. Each visit will be more like a wellness “tune up” to keep you at your optimum health.
It is difficult to say how many treatments you might need. It all depends on your desired health outcomes, your overall health, and how often you receive treatment.
In general, acupuncture typically requires more frequent visits at the beginning of treatment for symptom management. Our goal is to create a new habit in your body after years of old habits. We approach this in three stages: relief care, corrective care, and maintenance care.
The goal of relief care is to get acute symptoms under control as quickly as possible. This could be anything from pain relief to immediate relief from mental or emotional distress due to things like PTSD and depression. At this stage, symptom relief occurs more quickly and requires more frequent visits.
In relief care, it is normal for symptoms to return in 12 to 48 hours. That is when you return for another treatment before the symptoms go back to the original levels. The pause between symptoms will get longer and longer as treatment progresses. During relief care, you may also notice other improvements in sleep, stress levels, digestion, and energy levels.
Once symptoms are under control and periods of relief become longer, the next stage is corrective care. You might still have symptoms, but they will be more manageable.
Corrective care is where real change begins. During corrective care, we get to the root of the problem. This is where people’s lives begin to transform. Acupuncture visits become less frequent, and new wellness tools are introduced. These may include diet or movement changes. At this stage, we are working on the original problem and other health problems are getting better and staying better.
This is also a danger zone, though. You might begin to feel better and discontinue care. At that point, original symptoms may return, bringing you back to where you started.
When the dysfunction of the body is fixed and symptoms are less frequent or severe, you will move into the final stage: maintenance. Your visits will be much less frequent, serving more as “tune-ups” for your ongoing good health.
The original health problem is resolved or dramatically improved, and the rest of your health has begun to transform. For example, you don’t get sick as much. If you do, you get better quicker because you come in for acupuncture tune ups.
Each person will travel through these stages at a different rate. Your acupuncturist will discuss your treatment plan at your first visit, modifying the schedule as you reach each of your health goals.
Acupuncture is not a religion. It is a comprehensive, functional medicine approach to treating bodily ailments. The original language of acupuncture can sometimes cause people to think that acupuncture is a belief system, not an actual medical practice. But research has shown very clearly that acupuncture works.
That said, your mind can affect any outcome. A positive mental attitude, along with a healthy curiosity about your treatment options, will greatly increase your chances of successful treatment.
Community acupuncture follows the same principles as individually-delivered treatments, but is offered to a number of people at once. Although the best acupuncture treatment plans are highly individualized, there are cases in which community acupuncture can offer tremendous benefit.
For example, if you are participating in a workplace wellness program, community acupuncture can help relieve stress and offer general therapeutic benefits during the day. For patients on a budget, community acupuncture may be a more affordable option for wellness support.
Even in a community acupuncture setting, though, it’s important to choose an acupuncturist that has completed a three to four year medical degree that includes 4,000 hours of training. Otherwise, the best treatment plan is one that is accessible, affordable, and available when you are ready. In some cases, community acupuncture is a way to receive treatment when individual treatment just isn’t possible. Once you’ve enjoyed the benefits, the hope is that you move towards targeted, individualized treatments for better health.
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