Understanding Acupuncture: Its Benefits and Results

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Acupuncture, a traditional Chinese medicine practice, can relieve pain and alleviate symptoms of other health conditions. Learn about the practice before you try it.

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Acupuncture has traditionally been used to treat a wide variety of ailments either alone or in combination with other types of treatment. Ancient Chinese practitioners have used this practice for thousands of years to treat pain, insomnia, and relieve stress and symptoms related to a variety of conditions. It is important to understand acupuncture and how it works to learn how practitioners, such as those at South Shore Acupuncture in Bellmore, NY, choose to perform acupuncture, how it helps you heal, and how you can prepare for an acupuncture session. This article is your first step towards becoming familiar with acupuncture.

What is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture, a part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), is considered a form of alternative medicine. In the process, thin needles are inserted into the body at specific points along energy lines (known as meridians). Needles stimulate those points to relieve certain health conditions or symptoms, such as pain. 

What is the Philosophy Behind Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is not traditionally based on science or medicine. In the TCM, the human being is seen as an integral part of nature. Just as nature is harmonious when it is in balance, the human body is healthy when its energy (called ‘qi’, pronounced ‘chee’) is balanced and flowing properly.  Having incorrect qi flow (such as with blocks or deficiencies) can lead to illness. An acupuncturist’s goal is to help your body maintain harmony and balance by correcting imbalances of qi flow at identifiable points close to the skin.

How does Acupuncture Work?

There are two ways to answer this question. On the one hand, there is an ancient explanation for this treatment using terms like qi and meridians neither of which is recognized by clinical researchers. On the other hand, scientists have attempted to explain the phenomenon using standard medical terms. 

Practitioners of Chinese medicine believe qi disruptions cause imbalances in the body’s energy, which causes illness. Qi is said to flow through meridians, or energy-carrying channels in the human body. There are hundreds of acupoints along 14 major meridians in the body. According to TCM, needles inserted into these points in the right combination restore energy flow to its natural state.

Acupuncture has been explained using neuroscience. In the 1970s, scientists discovered endorphins, which are molecules that ease pain and provide pleasure. According to science, acupuncture points are places where nerves, muscles, and connective tissues can be stimulated to increase blood flow and release endorphins. These metabolic changes may boost physical and mental well-being by stimulating the body’s natural healing capacities. It’s unclear how these small pegs trigger an endorphin rush. Though some scientists doubt the therapy’s effectiveness, acupuncture is considered beneficial for your health. 

What Can Acupuncture Do?

As a whole, the World Health Organization recognizes acupuncture as being effective in treating hundreds of diseases and symptoms. In recent years, doctors have attempted to find a non-drug pain treatment approach. Deaths from opioid overdoses (the class of powerful pain medications) have been deemed an epidemic by the CDC. Acupuncture can be an alternative method of managing chronic (long-lasting) pain. Different types of pain and associated physical symptoms can also be effectively treated with acupuncture. These include knee pain and osteoarthritis, lower back pain, migraine and headaches, and neck pain. 

TCM uses acupuncture to treat fatigue, infertility, liver disease, indigestion, hormonal imbalances, high blood pressure, dysmenorrhea, menstrual pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, cancer recovery, or chemotherapy-related symptoms. However, acupuncture is much more effective than traditional treatment when used with other treatments, such as medication and/or physical therapy. 

Are There Different Types of Acupuncture?

The practice of acupuncture has spread from China to Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Europe, and America. It is now practiced throughout the world. Acupuncturists from different regions adapted acupuncture according to their differing opinions about theory and technique. Today, there are reportedly around thirteen different types of acupuncture in the world, ten traditional and three western.

More traditional Chinese acupuncturists focus exclusively on directing qi, or energy, through the body. Acupuncture in western medicine uses needles to stimulate the body’s system using the principles of western medicine. Most acupuncturists use a combination of both approaches.

Are There Risks Involved with Acupuncture? 

The World Health Organization states that acupuncture is generally safe when performed by a licensed, well-trained practitioner. Contrary to many drug therapies, it is relatively nontoxic with few side effects. 

Bruising and soreness are common side effects of needle insertion. As disposable needles are now the standard, infection risks are very low. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates acupuncture needles. The FDA requires that needles are steel, solid, sterile, nontoxic, and labeled properly. 

About 1% of patients experience pain during treatment. Nerve and structure injuries are uncommon in patients. It is possible to experience altered sensations at the site of application. Opting out of allopathic and traditional care is a potential risk associated with acupuncture. This may result in inadequate treatment of the condition. Because of this, many doctors and practitioners consider acupuncture a complementary therapy. Occasionally, existing symptoms can worsen after treatment. This is something you should discuss with your acupuncturist, but usually, it is regarded as a positive sign.

Who Should Avoid Acupuncture?

This form of medical care is not appropriate for everyone. Complications can occur if:

  • You have a bleeding disorder. With a bleeding disorder, you are more likely to bleed or bruise from needles.
  • You have a pacemaker. An acupuncture procedure that involves mild electrical pulses may interfere with the functioning of a pacemaker.
  • You are pregnant. The use of some types of acupuncture may induce labor prematurely, resulting in an untimely birth.
  • You are taking anticoagulants, blood thinners, or any other medication. 
  • You have a damaged heart valve or any other particular complication that may increase the risk of infection (e.g. if you have to take antibiotics for dental work).

Notify your physiotherapist if any of these conditions exist.

How Do You Choose an Acupuncturist?

When considering an acupuncturist, follow the same steps you take to choose a doctor. If you know someone who has had a positive experience with an acupuncturist, ask that person for a personal referral or introduction. Examine the practitioner’s qualifications and training. In most jurisdictions, non-physician acupuncturists need to undergo a national certification exam given by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). Some certification criteria differ slightly from one state to the next (for instance, California has its licensing test).

Alternatively, you can search online for certified acupuncturists in your area. Consult your doctor before trying acupuncture. You may be able to ask your doctor about the success rate of using acupuncture for your condition or ask them to recommend an acupuncture practitioner. 

Interviewing the practitioner can also be a good way to choose. You should ask how the treatment works, whether it is likely to help, and the cost of the treatment. Check to see if your insurance will cover the treatment. 

What Can You Expect During Acupuncture Sessions? 

Your treatment will begin with an initial consultation. At this consultation, the acupuncturist will take a detailed health history, perform a physical examination, and discuss your behavior and lifestyle. The acupuncturist then customizes a treatment plan to meet your specific health needs. Treatment depends on the severity and type of condition being treated. Generally, six to eight treatments are required. Initially, you may need to visit more frequently, but as your symptoms improve, you can begin spacing the visits further apart. 

At your appointment, the acupuncture practitioner will explain the general location of the treatment and whether you need to remove any clothing. You will be swabbed with alcohol at certain points on your body to cleanse those areas. You may feel a slight pinch during needle insertion, but it will soon subside. There may also be heaviness, distention, warmth, or even a traveling sensation along the meridians. Needles may be left in for fifteen to forty minutes, depending on the condition. You may also feel very relaxed during the session and even fall asleep.

Acupuncture is usually used in conjunction with other treatments. With chronic pain, someone will likely use both medications and acupuncture. No matter how good acupuncture makes you feel, continue taking any prescribed medications. Also, don’t rely on acupuncture practitioners to diagnose diseases unless they are licensed physicians.

Final Words

As per acupuncture, health problems are caused by disruptions in the flow of “qi,” the life force. Acupuncture professionals use hair-thin needles to regulate qi flow, balance the body’s energy, and promote relaxation at certain acupuncture locations. How acupuncture works is not yet fully understood. However, that is not a valid reason to abandon it. Acupuncture may be worth a try if you are having trouble managing pain or other health issues with conventional methods. Make sure it’s right for you by consulting your doctor. Acupuncture is only as good as the person administering it, and most of the benefits of the treatment will come from mutual feedback between you and your practitioner.