The first few questions and answers are taken from ‘Why Did You Put That Needle There?’ This book is a great primer for people who are new to acupuncture.
What is Acupuncture?
Let’s first define the terms. ‘Acupuncture’ comes from the Latin ‘acus’ (point) and ‘punctura’ (to prick)
From Webster’s online dictionary:
Main Entry: acu·punc·ture
An originally Chinese practice of inserting fine needles through the skin at specific points especially to cure disease or relieve pain.
This seems as good a quick definition as any. We’ll offer up another with a little more detail:
Acupuncture is one of the oldest, most common and dependable medical therapies used in the world. It is by nature simple, safe and effective health care. Acupuncture practitioners use thin, sterile disposable needles inserted superficially into specific areas of the body in order to help the body’s ability to heal itself.
Over the three decades or so in which acupuncture has gained popularity in the United States, it has been proven by an increasing body of scientific evidence to be not only exceptionally safe, but statistically effective as well.
Why would I want to get acupuncture?
People get acupuncture for many different reasons. For our purposes, we’ll offer two main answers to this question.
- A) Here is a list of conditions the World Health Organization has deemed appropriate for treatment with acupuncture. (skip down to page 23 of this 1979 report)
- B)In addition, we’ll offer up a list of ‘no-brainer’ conditions – that is, situations that should absolutely be treated with acupuncture without hesitation:
Athletic sprain/strain, acute back and/or neck strain, temporal mandibular disorder (TMJ), Bell’s palsy, headaches (including migraines), palpitations, early stages of cold/flu, asthma, tendinitis, arthritis, insomnia (poor sleep), Raynaud’s, anxiety, high levels of stress, addictions, irritable bowel syndrome, reflux, hemorrhoids, many gynecological issues (including PMS), herpes zoster (shingles) and pre-/post-surgery for accelerated healing.
Do I have to believe in this for it to work?
Absolutely not. You only have to believe enough to show up a few times in order to give yourself the chance to see positive changes.
Do acupuncturists have to hold to some religious beliefs that I don’t know about?
No. Acupuncturists come from as many varied traditions of faith as your local banker, car mechanic or hairdresser. Acupuncture is born of philosophical traditions, not religious. It is given and received many thousands of times every day by Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and atheists among others.
Do the needles hurt?
Not really much at all. However, getting an acupuncture treatment isn’t always painless. More than anything a treatment should be a deeply relaxing and sleepy slice of time for you.
Here’s what we’d like our patients to know: You may feel a bit of a pinch when the needles are tapped in, but this should ease right away. If you continue to feel a pinching or a burning sensation at the needle site any longer than this, let us know. It means we haven’t placed that needle real well. If on the other hand you are feeling a slight ache or heavy feeling near the needle, this is usually a good sign – a clue that the body is reacting in a productive way.
The bottom line is that as long as the feelings around the needled areas don’t keep you from closing your eyes and napping for a little while, we say let them be.
Will I have to come get acupuncture forever to keep feeling good?
Likely not, but this also depends on the reason(s) you’re getting treated in the first place.
For short-term issues, a handful of acupuncture treatments should do the job. For chronic or long-standing issues, a maintenance schedule of some sort would be in order to keep systems running smoothly and steadily after the initial period of relief and change.
For example, patient Melissa comes in for help with pain and swelling from a new ankle sprain less than 24 hours old. This type of injury responds best with acupuncture treatments two out of three days, which would probably be plenty to help Melissa’s body sort out her injury completely.
On the other hand, David gets acupuncture treatments to work toward better management of long-term anxiety and insomnia that he’s struggled with for five years. Chances are good he’ll start to see clear changes in the pattern and intensity of his symptoms with steady treatments over four weeks or so. After this time, his acupuncturist will likely recommend regular but less frequent treatments for another stretch of time to help make sure the process of change continues moving forward. Once David finds himself in a place where he’s consistently happy with his sleep and anxiety levels, we’ll know it’s time to dial back the frequency of his treatments even further. The aim here is to provide as few acupuncture treatments as possible while maintaining gains made.
Do you sterilize your needles?
When people ask this, we think there may be an assumption that we are re-using needles. This is not the case at all. For the last 15-20 years, acupuncturists have used one-time use, sterilized, disposable needles as the industry standard. So there is no re-using of needles even from one part of the body to another.
Sterile package opened, needle in, needle out and put into a bio-hazard box to dispose of responsibly and that’s it.
Why do I feel sleepy once the needles are in?
To be honest, we’re not sure. There have been many attempts at explaining why this happens and why acupuncture works in general. Our sense is, the presence of the needles causes our central nervous system to move into a clear pattern of rest (parasympathetic), allowing for our quickest healing and recovery to take place. Not unlike when we sleep at night.
This may explain why acupuncture is so effective at helping people overcome the many troubles associated with high stress levels – a state we can find ourselves in which is characterized by our nervous systems staying in a “fight or flight mode’ (sympathetic) for extended periods of time.
Remaining in this state for long periods of time can keep us from recovering in an ideal way, leading to nagging injuries, sleeplessness or illness.
We can tell you, helping people get into a sleepy state is one of the most predictable and best effects acupuncture has to offer.
What are you injecting through the needles to make this work?
Nothing. And we couldn’t if we tried. Needles that acupuncturists use are a filiform type, which means they are solid, not hollow like the type of needles ‘shots’ are given through (hypodermic syringe).
In fact, a standard-sized hypodermic syringe can hold about a dozen average-sized acupuncture needles inside of it.
So… how does all this work?
This is really the million-dollar question. The easiest answer we can offer, in bio-medical terms, is that no one has a definitive explanation. There have been many attempts to nail down The One Reason acupuncture works, but to our knowledge, no one has got it – yet.
In all likelihood there isn’t one factor, but that many reactions going on at once involving different systems – including the central nervous system – that allow acupuncture to have such wide, strong and lasting effects. This can be seen by people predictably being eased out of the “fight or flight” response (sympathetic) into the “rest and recuperate” state (parasympathetic) once needles are placed during a treatment.
If you have been told or have read that there is one factor to account for how acupuncture works, that explanation is probably not the whole picture.
The most commonly referenced studies on the topic of how acupuncture works have been directed and written by Dr. Bruce Pomerantz, an American physician. Through his ongoing studies, he and his colleagues have found that the body produces measurable amounts of endorphins (natural ‘pain-killing’ chemicals) when receiving acupuncture. For a time, this was thought to be the breakthrough understanding for the mechanism of acupuncture’s effect.
In our opinion however, there are limits to this explanation. For instance, his initial landmark study involved some very aggressive acupuncture needling followed by electricity added to the needles. It was only under these circumstances that the measurable amount of endorphins were identified. This does little to explain how much more subtle needling (like the sort seen in most acupuncture clinics) would initiate changes and cause reduction in pain or improve function, for example.
Does this just take away pain or really heal things?
Acupuncture tends to do a good job at both relieving pain and assisting the body’s abilities to heal itself. In the way that we observe the effects of treatments, there isn’t a separation between pain relief and healing: in other words if it were not for the healing, the pain reduction wouldn’t happen. The needles are just simple, sterile, unaltered filiform needles. They aren’t dipped in a chemical that numbs pain, but rather it seems they help promote movement of blood and body fluids, relaxes tissues and the nervous system in general. This is how pain is reduced.
I am pregnant – can I still get acupuncture?
Yes! In fact, there are many reasons why an expecting Mom would benefit from a string of treatments. Here are a few we’ve seen here in clinic: Managing gestational diabetes and thyroid changes during pregnancy, nausea, heartburn, low back pain, and sciatica, wrist pain, insomnia, stress and anxiety, urinary tract infections, threatened miscarriage and breech position of the baby. Many ‘overdue’ Moms use acupuncture to help induce labor when faced with the prospect of chemical induction. In addition, after the baby’s birth acupuncture can assist new Moms to recover strength and build back reserves while helping to manage common post-partum problems like: depression, insufficient lactation, mastitis, night sweats, fatigue, and persistent uterine bleeding.
Can my child receive acupuncture?
Absolutely. In fact, we’ve seen many kids respond to acupuncture more quickly than adults do! With acupuncture rallying the body’s own resources in order to function better, young people’s deep energy reserves play a central role in reliably turning illness/injuries around quickly. From newborns on up to the late-teens years, we’ve been able to help kids and young adults get a better handle on stomachaches, chronic nausea, earaches, chronic bed-wetting, headaches and asthma (among other complaints) with regularity.
What is an acupuncture treatment like?
This is difficult to say because of the wide variations in the styles of acupuncture performed. Generally, three to thirty needles will be placed. Costs vary depending on locale and practitioners training and experience
What training is required to practice acupuncture? Do you have recommendations in this regard?
Requirements can vary significantly worldwide. In the United States, a Master’s Degree is usually required to obtain a license.
Can acupuncture help cancer patients?
Read the article “Acupuncture and Cancer Treatment.”