What is Acupuncture?
Eastern medical philosophies are starting to become integrated into and more commonly practiced in the West. What many alternative and Eastern philosophies have in common is the idea that the body works as a whole, and that the body is that which can primarily work to heal itself, with assistance in some cases. Many of these alternative practices have come to the US, including acupuncture.
Acupuncture Points and Qi
Acupuncture originated in ancient China. The basic concept is that the acupuncturist manipulates patients with “thin, solid needles” that enter certain, very specific points of the skin. These points direct the flow of “qi” through “channels known as meridians” and help the body come into balance.1 Qi (“chee”) is thought to be what coordinates balance in the body between the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual states. Acupuncture can help balance “yin and yang”, the opposing forces in the body. When balance is achieved, the body is in “harmony”. Though there is no direct scientific proof that these meridians or acupuncture points exist, there are neuroscientific explanations for how the nerves, muscles, and connective tissue can be stimulated. The stimulation increases the flow of blood in the affected areas, triggering the body’s natural painkillers.
Acupuncture Needles and Treatment
Acupuncture needles are thin and cause little to no pain. Patients may report feeling “cramping, tingling, numbness, warmth, or heaviness”. When compared to side effects that could occur from taking traditional medications, side effects from acupuncture are minimal.2 Many patients may feel “energized” after treatment, or even “relaxed”. As long as the needles are properly placed, patients should not feel pain or soreness for the duration of or after treatment. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the needles used in acupuncture. Some acupuncture practitioners use “other forms of stimulation”, including pressure (acupressure), friction, suction, heat, and electromagnetic energy impulses. Acupuncture is thought to affect the body by stimulating the nervous system and releasing chemicals into the body that can help it self-regulate.3
Better Than Placebos
Research into acupuncture has shown that it is “more effective than placebos” for certain treatments, such as reducing nausea after surgery. The US National Institutes of Health, UK National Health Service, the World Health Organization, and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) have endorsed the use of acupuncture provided by professionals on patients for “certain conditions”. Acupuncture has been determined to be safe, as long as practitioners are properly trained and use sterile needles. Patients should be sure to learn more about their local provider of acupuncture, such as what type of needles they use and the amount of training that they have received.4 The FDA has even noted that Americans make up to “12 million visits per year” for acupuncture. One-third of the 10,000 certified acupuncturists practice in the US.
Acupuncture may be very effective in reducing pain by working on the stimulation of endorphins and opiates within the body. The reason it might help is by “releasing hormones, neurotransmitters, and other chemicals” that can help the body heal and regulate itself.5 Acupuncture might help the body conduct electromagnetic signals (to release “pain-killing biochemicals”), activates the opioid system of the body, stimulates the pituitary gland and hypothalamus in the brain (which regulate sleep, temperature, appetite, and hormones), and changes neurotransmitter and neurohormone secretions.6 According to a report from Reuters Health, “acupuncture may ease cancer-related fatigue”. Acupuncture could also alleviate side effects induced by cancer treatment without itself directly treating cancer. It could also help to alleviate anxiety and depression.7 “These are very promising results which suggest acupuncture could reduce fatigue symptoms and improve the quality of life of many former breast cancer patients.”8
Many conditions may benefit from acupuncture
These include the following:
- eye issues,
- ear problems,
- throat disorders,
- and even blood pressure,
- athletic performance,
- and the immune system.
In an indirect way, patients who pursue acupuncture might become more health conscious, leading to weight loss if it was necessary. Acupuncture does not directly lead to this weight loss; the patient may apply what they learned about their body in terms of maintaining their own health.9
Acupuncture and Fibromyalgia
While not all studies have shown that acupuncture treats fibromyalgia fully, there is some research that has suggested that it might ease the patient’s stiffness, pain, anxiety, and improve sleep. The most common type of acupuncture is manual, where the needles just pierce the skin. Another form of this treatment, electroacupuncture, is a method where an electric current is made to pass through the needles. Some studies have shown that this latter type may work better for treating or relieving the symptoms of fibromyalgia than the manual version.
When choosing an acupuncture practitioner
Patients should consult with their primary physician, choose a licensed practitioner, and examine their insurance coverage benefits.10 CAM health care, including acupuncture, can even be found in certain hospitals, such as the University of Colorado Hospital’s Center for Integrative Medicine.11
Learn more about massage and acupuncture for migraines.