Most people today have heard about acupuncture. However, not as many people really understand what acupuncture is, how it works, and how it might benefit your health. Acupuncture as a practice involves penetrating the skin with thin, solid, metallic needles which are then activated through gentle and specific movements of the practitioner's hands or with electrical stimulation.
What is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is an ancient practice that comes from the system of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners use acupuncture to treat a variety of conditions by triggering specific points on the skin with needles. Traditionally, these needles are used to clear blockages of chi in the body.
Chi (sometimes spelt Qi) is a concept in Traditional Chinese Medicine and philosophy that refers to our life-energy. According to ancient Chinese philosophy, the universe is made up of this living energy called chi, and our bodies are also made up of and contain chi. They say that chi energy flows through energy channels in our bodies known as meridians. Acupuncture needles can supposedly influence the flow of chi in the body, clearing any chi blockages in the meridians and restoring our health.
The entire practice of acupuncture is founded upon the concept of chi and meridians. While this may be met with skepticism by some, there are countless reports about the benefits of acupuncture. It has been practiced for over 2,500 years, and is a widely recognized alternative therapy today.
Interestingly, the concept of life-energy is not exclusive to Chinese philosophy. In fact, most ancient civilizations and cultures had a concept of “life-energy” animating the body and leaving the body at the time of death. In India, life-energy is called Prana. In Japan, it is called Ki. Polynesians call it Mana. In Hebrew, it is called Ruach; and numerous other cultures have given their own unique names to life-energy.
How Does Acupuncture Work?
Many people use acupuncture as a traditional health modality and see great results. So, how does it work?
Traditional Chinese Medicine explains that the universe contains two primordial forces known as yin and yang. Yin is the passive, feminine, and negative force. Yang is the active, masculine, and positive force. According to Chinese philosophy, we see examples of yin and yang everywhere in nature—in the sun and moon, night and day, summer and winter, hot and cold, men and women, birth and death, and so on. Health, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, is the result of a harmonious balance of the yin and yang forces of chi in the body. Illness is said to be the consequence of an imbalance of these two forces.
Chi is said to flow through meridians, or pathways, in the human body. These meridians and energy flows are accessible through 350 acupuncture points in the body. Inserting needles into these points with appropriate combinations is said to bring the energy flow back into proper balance.
There is no scientific proof that the meridians or acupuncture points exist, and it is hard to prove that they either do or do not, but numerous studies suggest that acupuncture works for some conditions.
Some believe that chi is simply the name that the ancient Chinese gave to the bioelectricity of the nervous system, that “meridians” refers to the many nerve channels in the body, and that acupuncture points are places where nerves, muscles, and connective tissue can be stimulated.
Paul Kempisty, licensed acupuncturist with a MS in traditional Oriental medicine, says that, “Acupuncture is a minimally invasive method to stimulate nerve-rich areas of the skin surface in order to influence tissues, gland, organs, and various functions of the body. Each acupuncture needle produces a tiny injury at the insertion site, and although it’s slight enough to cause little to no discomfort, it’s enough of a signal to let the body know it needs to respond. This response involves stimulation of the immune system, promoting circulation to the area, wound healing, and pain modulation.” Most modern research on acupuncture relies mainly on this theory.
If this is the case, it is remarkable that the ancient Chinese people discovered these sensitive nerve centers of the body and were able to determine what body processes were stimulated by them. Regardless of exactly how it works, the practice of acupuncture has been shown to benefit many conditions throughout history. It is over 2,500 years old and is still used by many to this day.
Modern science has yet to confirm how acupuncture really works, and the invasive nature of acupuncture makes it is difficult to set up investigations using proper scientific controls.
What Conditions is Acupuncture Used For?
Acupuncture is used for many conditions. Some of the most common include:
- Abdominal pain
- Anxiety and depression
- Back pain
- Chronic pain
- Digestive ailments
- Menstrual cramps
- Morning sickness
- Stiff neck
Acupuncture is an effective remedy for a variety of conditions, but it cannot replace health essentials like good nutrition, healthy lifestyle habits, regular exercise, sufficient sleep, and low stress levels.
Are There Risks to Acupuncture?
While acupuncture is fairly safe for most people, especially when performed by trained Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors, it does have possible risks.
The possible risks of acupuncture are:
- It can be dangerous if a patient has a bleeding disorder or takes blood thinners.
- Bleeding, bruising, and soreness can occur at the insertion sites.
- Unsterilized needles may infect the patient.
- When inserted deeply into the chest or upper back, there is a risk of collapsed lung, but this is very rare.
The United States (U.S.) Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulate acupuncture needles as medical devices. Their manufacture and labeling needs to meet certain standards. The needles must be sterile, nontoxic, and labelled for one use only, by a licensed practitioner.
As with any complementary therapy, it is recommended to speak to your primary health care provider to see if acupuncture may be a good fit for you.
Never try acupuncture on your own without proper training. Not only may it worsen your symptoms, but according to Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors, it may also imbalance your chi, which could affect your organs and lead to complications in the future.
How to Find an Acupuncturist
To find a licensed acupuncture practitioner, you can visit https://www.nccaom.org/, the website for the National Certification Commission in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). Most states require practitioners to be licensed by this board. People are also advised to ask practitioners about their experience and training. Some insurance policies cover acupuncture, but it is important to check first whether the cost will be covered.
A typical acupuncture session and medical consultation usually costs from $75 to $95, and a routine visit between $50 and $70.
What to Expect
During an acupuncture treatment, an acupuncturist will examine the patient and assess their condition, insert one or more thin, sterile needles, and offer advice on self-care or other complementary therapies, such as Chinese herbs.
The patient will be asked to lie down on their back, front, or one side, depending on where the needles are going to be inserted. Once inserted, the needles will usually stay in place for between 5 and 30 minutes.
The acupuncturist should use single-use, disposable, sterile needles. As each needle is inserted, the patient may feel a very brief stinging or tingling sensation. Sometimes the needles are heated or stimulated with electricity after insertion.
Acupuncture is typically fairly painless. However, after the needle is inserted, there may be an occasional dull ache at the base of the needle that then subsides.
The number of treatments needed depends on the individual and the condition. A person with a chronic condition may need one to two treatments a week over several months. An acute problem normally improves after 8 to 12 sessions.
While it is not recommended to do acupuncture on your own without training, you may also benefit from pressing certain points with your fingers. This is known as the practice of acupressure.
Acupressure points are used for a variety of conditions. Some of the most common are:
- For menstrual cramps, massage the hollow of your inner ankle with a little pressure.
- For insomnia, rub clockwise, then counter-clockwise circles in the spot between your eyebrows.
- For lower back pain, press the space between the middle of your nose and upper lip.
- For general headaches, try pressure on the muscle between your thumb and index finger.
These are just a few examples, but there are many more.
Acupuncture Points for Anxiety and Depression
Our mental health is so important, and unfortunately, mental health is something that many people struggle with today. Acupuncture may also be able to help reduce stress and anxiety, as well as alleviate symptoms of depression. This makes it a great potential support to our overall mental health.
The “hall of impression” point, located in the center of your forehead, is one great point for helping reduce anxiety. Simply press your thumb or finger gently on this point for up to a few minutes and focus on deep breathing while you press.
The “union valley” point is another great point for anxiety, located in the webbing between your thumb and index finger. This point may also help with symptoms of depression.
The Neiguan point is another point that can be helpful for alleviating symptoms of depression. It is located in the middle of the wrist, about two finger widths below the palm. Use your thumb or forefinger to press on it for 2 to 3 minutes.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese practice used to treat a variety of conditions. The practice involves triggering specific points on the skin with needles to clear blockages of chi in the body.
Chi (sometimes spelt Qi) is a concept in Traditional Chinese Medicine and philosophy that refers to our life-energy. According to ancient Chinese philosophy, chi energy flows through energy channels in our bodies known as meridians. Acupuncture needles can supposedly influence the flow of chi in the body, clearing any chi blockages and restoring health.
While this is the ancient philosophy behind acupuncture, contemporary research on acupuncture suggests that acupuncture needles actually stimulate nerve-rich areas of the skin surface in order to influence tissues, gland, organs, and various functions of the body.
Regardless of exactly how it works, acupuncture has successfully treated numerous conditions in many people, has been practiced for over 2,500 years, and is a respected alternative medicine therapy today.
While acupuncture is fairly safe for most people, especially when performed by trained Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors, it does have possible risks. It is recommended to speak to your primary health care provider first to see if acupuncture may be a good fit for you.