What Is It?
Acupuncture is a technique that involves inserting very thin metal needles into the skin at precise points on the body to clear energy channels, with the aim of restoring and maintaining health. The spots of insertion are picked based on a complex network of lines of energy, termed meridians. Meridians are thought to encircle the body like global lines of longitude and latitude.
Acupuncture is a mainstay of traditional Chinese medicine, which has been practiced for thousands of years. The Chinese healing tradition sees the body as a delicate balance of yin and yang. These are two opposing, but inseparable forces. According to traditional Chinese medicine, disease occurs when the forces of yin and yang are out of balance.
Imbalance, it is believed, blocks the flow of qi, a vital energy that regulates spiritual, emotional, mental and physical balance, along meridians. By inserting needles at specific points on the body that connect with these meridians, acupuncture is believed to unblock the flow of qi, restoring health to the body and mind.
Western medicine explains acupuncture’s effects within a different framework. Some Western scientists believe that acupuncture stimulates the central nervous system, signaling the body to release various substances including endorphins, immune system cells, opioids, neurotransmitters, and neurohormones. These may help control pain, change how the body experiences pain, and promote physical and emotional well-being. Some research also indicates that acupuncture influences involuntary central nervous functions, such as blood pressure, blood flow, and body temperature regulation.
What It’s Used For
Acupuncture is used for a wide variety of ailments, such as:
- persistent painful conditions including low back pain and pain related to arthritis
- post operative pain
- adverse reactions to chemotherapy and radiation therapy
- hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms
It can be used as a stand alone treatment, or alongside more traditional medical treatments like prescription medication or surgery.
However, there is insufficient scientific evidence proving whether or not acupuncture works for these or other conditions.
The current consensus statement on acupuncture from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that overall, studies on acupuncture have been small and poorly designed according to Western standards. This makes their results difficult to interpret.
The NIH is funding studies on acupuncture to rectify the problem. So far, one NIH-sponsored trial has found that acupuncture decreases pain and disability associated with osteoarthritis of the knee, when combined with standard medical treatments.
Another trial, this one on people with back chronic low back pain, found that patients who got acupuncture along with standard medical care did fare better than those who only got standard care. However, people who were given sham acupuncture (the needles did not actually enter the skin) did as well as those given real acupuncture. Therefore, the results are hard to interpret.
If you want to try acupuncture, be sure to choose a licensed acupuncturist. Most states require a license to practice acupuncture. The requirements, education, and training standards for obtaining a license vary from state to state. If you live in a state that does not require a license, choose a practitioner who is licensed in another state or is certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.
It’s also important to make sure that the acupuncturist uses only sterilized needles that are disposed of after a single use.
Before your first acupuncture session, prepare a comprehensive list of all of your medical conditions and all treatments or medications you are taking.
How It’s Done
During your first appointment, your practitioner is likely to ask you detailed questions about your health, lifestyle, and behaviors. The questions will range far beyond the specific symptoms for which you are seeking treatment. This is in keeping with the holistic nature of traditional Chinese medicine. You will also be asked about any medical conditions you have, which may or may not be related to your current symptoms, and about all medications and other treatments you are currently receiving.
Before the acupuncture treatment begins, you will be asked to lie down. You may lie face down, face up, or on your side, depending on where the needles are to be placed. Alternatively the acupuncturist may want you to sit in a chair. You may be asked to roll up your sleeves or pant legs, or otherwise adjust your clothing to allow your acupuncturist access to the required body parts.
The acupuncturist will wipe the spots where needles will be inserted with alcohol or another disinfectant. The practitioner will then begin to place the acupuncture needles are various locations on your body. The needles are metallic, solid, and hair-thin. You should feel no or minimal discomfort as the needles are inserted. Most people either feel relaxed or energized when the needles are inserted.
You should not feel soreness or pain during treatment. Pain and soreness usually result when the patient moves during treatment, if a needle is improperly placed, or if there is a defect in the needle.
In a variation of acupuncture known as electroacupuncture, the practitioner may use a device to generate electric pulses along the needles. Considered an enhanced form of acupuncture, electroacupuncture further stimulates the points of acupuncture, or acupoints. The needles may be left in for only a few minutes, or up to thirty minutes or longer.
Acupuncture may be used as a stand-alone treatment. But it can also be used in combination with more conventional, Western medical treatments.
Your acupuncturist may suggest you be seen weekly or more than once a week, over a period of several weeks or more. Determining how well acupuncture is working is a subjective judgement made according to how you feel. Each visit will usually include an exam, an assessment of your symptoms and overall health, the acupuncture treatment, and possibly a discussion of self-care tips.
Acupuncture is generally considered to be safe when done by a trained professional.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates acupuncture needles and restricts their use to licensed practitioners. The FDA requires acupuncture needles to be sterile, nontoxic, and labeled for single use. If needles are reused, they can transmit infectious disease. To avoid this risk, make sure that your practitioner uses a new package of sterile, single-use needles at each appointment. In addition, the practitioner should swab each puncture site with alcohol before inserting the needle.
Acupuncture may not be safe for people who are taking blood thinners (anticoagulants) or who have bleeding disorders. Electroacupuncture should be avoided by anyone with a cardiac pacemaker, infusion pump, or other electrical device.
The most common side effects of acupuncture include bleeding, soreness, or bruising at the site of needle insertion. Other risks of acupuncture include dizziness, fainting, local internal bleeding, convulsions, hepatitis B, dermatitis, nerve damage, increased pain, and injury to an internal organ. Rarely, acupuncture has caused a punctured lung. The number of complications reported to the FDA is relatively low, given that millions of people receive acupuncture treatment each year.
The best way to reduce your risk of complications is to choose a competent, certified practitioner. You can begin by asking your health care provider for recommendations, or by asking a national acupuncture organization for a list of licensed practitioners in your area. Some conventional medical practitioners, including doctors and dentists, practice acupuncture. Be sure to check a prospective practitioner’s credentials.
Be sure you tell your doctor about any complementary or alternative treatments you are receiving, including acupuncture. Tell your acupuncture practitioner about any conventional treatments you are receiving.
When To Call a Professional
Call your acupuncturist if you experience pain, soreness, bleeding, signs of infection at the site of needle insertion, or any other side effects. If you have any dizziness, fainting, or other unusual reaction, also notify your doctor.
National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM)
76 South Laura Street, Suite 1290
Jacksonville, FL 32202
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
National Institutes of Health
P.O. Box 7923
Gaithersburg, MD 20898
Toll Free: 1-888-644-6226
American Academy of Medical Acupuncture
1970 E. Grand Ave.
El Segundo, California 90245