What Is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a healing art that may have originated in ancient China. Documents describing the practice date back to the first century BCE, while some believe archaeological evidence points to a much earlier origin: possibly as early as 8,000 years ago.
The medical theory of acupuncture centers on the concept of qi energy (pronounced “chee”). Qi is said to flow through the body’s energy pathways, known as meridians. Meridians match certain organs or groups of organs. Unlike Western medicine, traditional Chinese medicine holds that disease is caused by an imbalance of this energy’s flow through the meridians.
In an attempt to unblock or otherwise redirect the flow of energy, acupuncturists shallowly insert very thin needles into specific points in the skin tissue. These points are called acupoints. There are different ways of counting the acupoints, but most systems catalog about 350-400 such points. Medical acupuncture is often used for pain relief, among other treatments, and is now covered by many insurance policies.
We want to help you make the best possible choices regarding the health of yourself and your family. To that end, read on to discover how acupuncture is thought to work, the common ailments acupuncturists seek to relieve, certain dangers to be avoided, how to best choose an acupuncturist, and much more.
How Does Acupuncture Work?
Understanding how this ancient Chinese health method works has been challenging to modern science. There are two ways to look at the question. On one hand, an ancient explanation is available to describe this treatment using terms like qi energy and meridians, none of which are recognized by clinical researchers. On the other hand, scientists have attempted to explain the phenomenon using standard medical terms.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, our bodies’ life force depends on a balanced flow of energy. This energy may be called qi, blood, or electrical energy from the nervous system. Under this system of belief, qi can become blocked, which causes painful sensations or loss of function in various body parts. From this perspective, an acupuncturist’s job is to remove blockages to make qi or blood circulate better, which is said to restore a healthy balance to the body.
Science explains this differently. In the 1970s, scientists identified endorphins as the chemicals that relieve pain and produce pleasure. Research suggests that properly performed acupuncture can produce a rush of endorphins that can relieve certain kinds of painful discomfort, as well as nausea. Exactly how these tiny pins cause an endorphin rush is not known. There are some in the scientific community who doubt the therapy has any special effect at all, which will be discussed later.
The practice has proven difficult to investigate. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that different practitioners use different numbers of acupoints, recommend different numbers of sessions, and hold those sessions for longer or shorter durations, making comparison difficult. The second challenge to researchers is that peoples’ beliefs and expectations, as well as how they feel about their therapist, may impact how effectively their conditions seem to them to be impacted by the treatment.
How Painful Are Those Pins?
Many people have a fear of needles. Maybe your yearly flu vaccination makes you flinch as it’s administered. But the needles used in acupuncture are far different from the ones used to draw blood or deliver a vaccine. In this case, the pins being used are quite fine. As a result, most people report little or no pain from the treatment. So if agony is your main concern when considering this treatment for your condition, rest assured: It shouldn’t hurt.
Lower Back Pain
One of the most common sources of chronic pain is felt in the lower back. For many, treatment for lower back pain (LBP) requires physical therapy, medicine, or in the worst cases, surgery. The evidence from many clinical trials studying traditional needling for LBP is inconsistent.
The different findings of 16 studies may depend on whether patient suffers from acute or chronic LBP. “Acute” refers to pain that comes and goes, and ends after an injury has healed, while “chronic” refers to ongoing pain that does not go away after an injury has healed. Researchers who compared the various reviews concluded that acupuncture improves pain and function of the lower back. However, patients suffering from acute LBP responded about the same whether their acupuncture treatment was performed accurately or intentionally inaccurately for testing purposes.
Tension and Migraine Headaches
Headaches are a frequent frustration for many people. Some research suggests careful needlework may provide effective, temporary relief for chronic tension headaches. When it comes to migraine headaches, researchers have concluded that needle treatments can be effective in treating such conditions even if they are not placed in the proper acupoints, and also show a possibly stronger effect than conventional drug therapy with fewer side effects.
Treatment for Fibromyalgia
Fibromyalgia is a common type of chronic pain that causes aching and tenderness across the body. It occurs about four times as often in women as it does in men. At least 20 percent of patients suffering from fibromyalgia will try needling as a treatment for their condition. Does it work?
One recent analysis looked at nine trials to try to answer that question. The researchers determined that the evidence of needling’s effectiveness is low to moderate when treating fibromyalgia pain and stiffness. It also concluded that the practice is safe, and that larger studies are warranted based on the available evidence.
Treating Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a common cause of joint pain and swelling that can make everyday activities difficult if not impossible. Unfortunately, the effect of acupuncture on RA seems to be limited or nonexistent according to a recent examination of the evidence. Researchers looked at two studies they described as being of “low to medium quality.” The studies followed 84 people suffering from RA and looked for reduction in pain, the number of swollen joints, and improvements on several other symptoms of the condition. While the studies seemed to see an improvement after acupuncture treatment for knee pain, that conclusion was marred by the poor quality of the trials.
Improving Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
When patients suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), they often experience pain and numbness in their index finger and middle finger. The condition also makes the thumb weaker. CTS is caused by a pinched wrist nerve.
So does acupuncture help improve CTS? The science remains inconclusive, according to the US National Institute of Health. The NIH found that needling benefits some people, but the exact effectiveness is not scientifically proven.
Relief from Dental Discomfort
Studies have suggested that acupuncture treatment can relieve pain left by dental surgery and pulled teeth, but it doesn’t seem to matter whether the pins are placed in accordance with traditional Chinese medicine.
Pain in Other Places
Acupuncture treatment has been attempted across a range of pain types, from menstrual cramps and tennis elbow to neck pain and muscle discomfort. The effectiveness of such treatments is all over the map, with some studies suggesting improvement of symptoms and others showing little or no improvement. The US National Institute of Health has called for further research in an attempt to verify whether or not such therapy has a useful effect for relieving these various ailments.
Acupuncture as Complementary Medicine
Often acupuncture work is accompanied by other forms of therapy in an attempt to ease a wide variety of ailments. When an alternative therapy is used alongside modern medical treatments to relieve symptoms, it is said to be a form of complementary medicine. Some studies suggest the therapy helps patients heal with fewer drugs, while others find that it seems to improve medical outcomes when used alongside standard medicine. Other examples of complementary medicine include:
- hypnotherapy, and
- tai chi.
Relief from Nausea
The evidence for acupuncture treatment for nausea has been mixed. The American College of Chest Physicians determined that acupuncture studies for nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy were poorly controlled, and therefore does not recommend its use. The US National Institute of Health, however, described the results of such therapies as “promising.” Nevertheless, no studies have shown ongoing nausea relief for delayed nausea that sets in 1-8 days after chemotherapy. Should the practice be used for gastrointestinal distress? Discuss it with your doctor if you think it may be beneficial for you.
When you have cancer symptoms or are undergoing chemotherapy, you may want an acupuncturist who can help you deal with pain, nausea, and vomiting. This type of professional should have experience working with cancer patients and should have a clear understanding of your symptoms. Some other cancer symptoms that may find relief this way include
xerostomia (dry mouth),
neuropathy (weakness and pain from nerve damage), and
Using pins for cancer relief is still being studied. Some trials suggest it works better in relieving vomiting than at reducing nausea. Be sure to talk to your doctor first to discuss your best medical treatment options for cancer.
Will It Improve Fertility?
Can tiny pinpricks make men or women more fertile? Lots of time and money has been spent in an attempt to further understand whether any fertility improvements can be determined from the procedure, but few conclusions can be drawn.
Different medical journals report different findings on the matter. One metastudy found that acupuncture may have a positive effect on male infertility, and found that it seems to enhance in vitro fertilization results in some cases. However another metastudy drew the opposite conclusion when it found that overall, precisely placed pinpricks could not be proven to increase pregnancy rates. Both agreed that the matter requires further inquiry before conclusions can be drawn.
Does It Help You Stop Smoking?
As is often the case, research points in different directions when the impact on smoking cessation is studied. Some one-off trials point to clinically significant results; however, these studies typically suffer from small sample sizes and poor methodology. One medical journal reported a metastudy looking into 33 separate reports concluded that no consistent evidence existed to recommend acupuncture as a smoking cessation aid, though the metastudy also called for more well-designed research into the area.
Safe for Children?
Assuming the acupuncturist is licensed and follows recommended safety standards, the practice is generally believed to be safe for kids. Typically it is used to control post-surgical nausea and vomiting, as well as painful symptoms. Treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), however, is not supported by scientific evidence.
Does Acupuncture Really Work?
While the practice has its champions, the topic of whether or not acupuncturists provide any special relief remains a hot topic in the scientific community. Many skeptics believe any perceived effects of acupuncture can be chalked up to the placebo effect or other research biases. These rationalists point to several problems with the current state of acupuncture research:
- Nobody knows how it works. Scientists call this the “mechanism” of a treatment, and so far no one has definitively proven how shallowly slipping thin needles under a person’s skin can lead to any health benefit. Sometimes the practice’s proponents say it has something to do with endorphins or other physical properties, and sometimes they use unscientific terms such as meridians or life energy to explain what’s happening. But getting beyond these explanations has proven troublesome.
- It doesn’t matter where the pins are placed. In many controlled trials, groups have been separated into those who receive their pins in specific acupoints and others who receive them elsewhere. Frequently no difference between the two groups can be ascertained. In some cases, the sham procedure produces better results than the authentic method.
- It works because people think it works. This line of skepticism is bolstered by a known phenomenon called the placebo effect. When the placebo effect is taking place, it may actually be that patients are experiencing some relief from their symptoms, so it doesn’t necessarily mean relief is “all in their heads.” One researcher concluded that placebos can stimulate natural opioids, which may provide an explanation for why the procedure works without any clear mechanism.
For the most part, acupuncture is considered quite safe. However there are some risks, and those can be serious. For example, it is of utmost importance to your health that the needles being used are sterile. Otherwise you may be putting yourself at needless risk of infection. Be absolutely sure your practitioner only uses sterile needles and tosses the old needles away after they are used.
While unusual, it is also possible for the needles to be inserted too deeply into the skin, which can cause problems with internal organs. The gallbladder, lungs, and blood vessels are at risk of being punctured in this way.
Take the time to do your research and make sure your practitioner has a consistent record of safety before agreeing to a session.
Who Should Avoid Acupuncture?
Not everyone should receive this form of medical care. If you have a bleeding disorder or if you take a blood thinning medicine, your risk of bleeding may increase and you should therefore exercise caution. Sometimes the needles being used are electrified, which could present dangers to anyone who relies on a pacemaker or similar electronic device. Health advocates recommend that pregnant women discuss this form of therapy with their doctor before proceeding. And if you decide to go through with acupuncture, it would be unwise to skip your conventional care and rely on needle work alone.
Picking an Acupuncturist
Make sure the person you choose has met certain basic standards for his or her health practice. Training and education in the proper fields should be one of your requirements. While licensing requirements vary from state to state, two national groups provide resources for licensure: the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) and the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture (for physicians).
Variations of the Practice
Acupuncture is practiced in more ways than one. For instance, some practitioners bundle dry mugwort at the end of a needle and burn it, a process known as moxibustion. In another variation, electroacupuncture may stimulate the nerves with an electrical current. Yet another variation involves the use of laser needles by placing them on (but not inside) the body’s surface.
Acupressure vs. Acupuncture
Maybe the thought of being pricked with a needle has you screaming for the nearest exit. If so, you may find that acupressure provides a similar effect on your health, without all the fear. Acupressure substitutes the needles with pressing or massaging acupoints in an attempt to stimulate pathways of energy. Some trials indicate that acupressure can be useful in reducing nausea and lessening the pains associated with labor during childbirth.