What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a treatment based on Chinese medicine — a system of healing that dates back thousands of years. At the core of Chinese medicine is the notion that a type of life force, or energy, known as qi (pronounced “chee”) flows through energy pathways (meridians) in the body. Each meridian corresponds to one organ, or group of organs, that governs particular bodily functions. Achieving the proper flow of qi is thought to create health and wellness. Qi maintains the dynamic balance of yin and yang, which are complementary opposites. According to Chinese medicine, everything in nature has both yin and yang. An imbalance of qi (too much, too little, or blocked flow) causes disease. To restore balance to the qi, an acupuncturist inserts needles at points along the meridians. These acupuncture points are places where the energy pathway is close to the surface of the skin.

Are there any Side Effects?

There are usually no side effects after treatment and many people feel a sense of deep relaxation. Infrequently, one may feel mild disorientation, which resolves with brief rest. Dizziness or a heavy, tired feeling can be due to lack of food. It is advised to eat a small meal prior to treatment.
Occasionally after treatment, pain symptoms worsen or the patient experiences unusual fatigue. Flare-ups are a sign that the brain has stimulated the immune system to work on the problem and generally subside after one to two days followed by a reduction in pain level. Fatigue indicates either that the body is deficient of energy or that it has been holding a lot of tension.
Some people experience an increase in energy after acupuncture treatments. It is important to reserve this energy for healing rather than engaging in strenuous activity.

How does acupuncture work?

The effects of acupuncture are complex. How it works is not entirely clear. Research suggests that the needling process, and other techniques used in acupuncture, may produce a variety of effects in the body and the brain. One theory is that stimulated nerve fibers transmit signals to the spinal cord and brain, activating the body’s central nervous system. The spinal cord and brain then release hormones responsible for making us feel less pain while improving overall health. In fact, a study using images of the brain confirmed that acupuncture increases our pain threshold, which may explain why it produces long-term pain relief. Acupuncture may also increase blood circulation and body temperature, affect white blood cell activity (responsible for our immune function), reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and regulate blood sugar levels.

What does an acupuncturist do?

In addition to asking questions, the acupuncturist may take your pulse at several points along the wrist and look at the shape, color, and coating of your tongue. The acupuncturist may also look at the color and texture of your skin, your posture, and other physical characteristics that offer clues to your health. You will lie down on a padded examining table, and the acupuncturist will insert the needles, twirling or gently jiggling each as it goes in. You may not feel the needles at all, or you may feel a twitch or a quick twinge of pain that disappears when the needle is completely inserted. Once the needles are all in place, you rest for 15 – 60 minutes. During this time, you’ll probably feel relaxed and sleepy and may even doze off. At the end of the session, the acupuncturist quickly and painlessly removes the needles.
For certain conditions, acupuncture is more effective when the needles are heated, using a technique known as “moxibustion.” The acupuncturist lights a small bunch of the dried herb moxa (mugwort) and holds it above the needles. The herb, which burns slowly and gives off a little smoke and a pleasant, incense like smell, never touches the body. Another variation is electrical acupuncture. This technique consists of hooking up electrical wires to the needles and running a weak current through them. In this procedure, you may feel a mild tingling, or nothing at all. Acupuncturists trained in Chinese herbal preparations may prescribe herbs along with acupuncture.

How Does Acupuncture Work?

Traditional Chinese medicine explains that energy called qi, (pronounced “chee”) and blood, circulate through pathways or meridians in the body. Meridians are different from the circulatory, nervous, or lymph systems. They are the pathways by which the qi and blood circulate through the body between the organs and tissues. An obstruction in the movement of energy flow through a meridian congests the flow of qi and blood, which can cause pain and other disorders. Needling specific acupuncture points unblocks the congestion and reestablishes the free flow of energy through the meridians.
From a Western scientific perspective, acupuncture stimulates the nervous system to release chemicals in the muscles, spinal cord, and brain, to change the experience of pain or to trigger the release of pain-relieving chemicals and hormones which influence the body’s own internal regulating system. The improved energy and biochemical balance produced by acupuncture stimulates the body’s natural healing abilities and promotes physical and emotional well-being.

The Acupuncture Procedure

Fine, sterile disposable needles are gently inserted through the skin into acupuncture points. Insertion of these slender needles goes unnoticed by some people. Others may feel a pinch followed by a sensation of tingling, numbness, aching, traveling warmth, or heaviness. The Chinese call this sensation deqi, which means “getting the qi.” Deqi usually passes quickly and indicates that the energy is starting to move. Some acupuncture points are more tender than others, and people have different pain tolerance levels, so some people will feel acupuncture doesn’t hurt at all, while others are more sensitive to it.
Sometimes the acupuncture points are connected to a gentle electrical stimulator to help relieve pain and spasm. Needles are left in place for 25 to 40 minutes while the patient lies quietly listening to music. Total treatment time takes one hour.

What are the health benefits and risks of acupuncture? 

All therapies have benefits and risks.

The possible benefits of acupuncture are:

– When performed correctly it is safe

– There are very few side effects

– It is a very effective combination treatment

– It is effective in controlling some types of pain

– It may be considered for patients who do not respond to pain medications

– It is a useful alternative for patients who do not want to take pain medications.

The possible risks of acupuncture are:

– It is dangerous if the patient has a bleeding disorder

– It the dangerous if the patient is taking blood thinners

– There may be bleeding, bruising and soreness at the insertion sites

– The needle may break and damage an internal organ (very rare)

– Unsterilized needles may infect the patient

– When inserted deeply into the chest or upper back there is a risk of collapsed lung (very rare).

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