Acupuncturists believe that when the flow of energy (“qi”) in the body is blocked or disturbed, various health issues may occur. The practice of acupuncture is supposed to restore the flow of qi in order to reach the balance of energy in the body.
The process involves inserting hair-thin needles into specific points throughout the body, which is meant to stimulate healing and relaxation. Traditional Chinese medicine theory suggests that there are more than a thousand different acupuncture points on the body, and each point lies on an invisible energy channel, called “meridian”. Each meridian is responsible for a particular organ system.
How Does It Work?
The mechanism of action of acupuncture treatment is not yet clearly understood, but there are several theories concerning this issue. According to some of them, acupuncture tends to stimulate the release of endorphins – natural pain-relieving chemicals in your body.
Some researchers also suggest that acupuncture affects the autonomic nervous system (that controls your bodily functions), contributes to the release chemicals regulating blood flow and pressure, decreases inflammation processes, and calms the brain causing overall relaxation.
What Can Acupuncture Be Indicated for?
According to acupuncturists, this traditional Chinese medicine practice may contribute to treatment of various conditions including arthritis, chronic pain, migraines, nausea, insomnia, depression, stress and anxiety, sciatica, sinus congestion, tinnitus, and weight loss.
Sometimes, acupuncture can be used to improve fertility.
Some people who are quitting smoking or trying to get rid of any other addiction use acupuncture, as well. Auricular acupuncture, commonly referred to as ear acupuncture, is believed to be effective for smoking cessation, addictions, as well as weight loss and anxiety.
There is also a type of acupuncture that is used to improve the appearance of your skin, known as cosmetic acupuncture or facial acupuncture.
How Effective Is Acupuncture?
Existing research on acupuncture suggests that this practice may provide some health benefits for those with low back pain, tension headaches and other unpleasant symptoms.
Thus, according to a research that was conducted in 2006 and involved 22 trials and 4985 participants, including acupuncture in the treatment of migraines may result in less migraine episodes. Moreover, this method has shown to be at least as effective as medication for reducing the frequency of episodes.
In addition, a 2013 study showed that acupuncture practice had a positive impact on people with non-specific chronic back pain, and therefore, was more helpful than no treatment.
In 2016, a review of 12 trials that involved 2349 participants found that at least six sessions of acupuncture may actually help those with frequent tension headaches.
Finally, based on the analysis of previously published studies, acupuncture may help to improve physical function as in the short, as in the long term in those suffering from chronic knee pain caused by osteoarthritis. However, such a method can provide only short-term pain relief.
What Does Acupuncture Treatment Typically Involve?
Before starting the actual appointment, an acupuncturist will normally ask you to complete your health history. The questions are often related to your health concerns, diet, appetite, food likes and dislikes, sleep, stress level, emotional balance, various lifestyle habits, and you also may be asked to remember how your body usually reacts to changes in temperature and seasons.
During the appointment, the acupuncturist needs to conduct a careful examination of your appearance, including your complexion, voice, and other factors. According to traditional Chinese medicine, your tongue and pulse reflect the health if your organ systems and meridians. Therefore, your tongue color and coating will be analyzed, and your pulse will be checked at three points on each of your wrists, in terms of strength, quality, and rhythm.
Usually, one acupuncture treatment procedure involves six to fifteen tiny needles inserted in certain points throughout your body. The intensity of the treatment does not depend on the number of needles. The process of inserting the needles is not painful, but you might still feel some stinging sensation. The average time for the needles to stay in is about 10 to 20 minutes. During this time, the acupuncturist may twist some of the needles.
Normally, you should not experience any unpleasant sensations, so if you feel pain, numbness or any kind of discomfort during the treatment, you should tell your doctor about it as soon as possible.
Sometimes, acupuncturists use special techniques for an additional effect.
Moxibustion, otherwise known as “moxa”, is an acupuncture-related technique that implies putting heated sticks made from dried herbs next to the needles in order to warm and stimulate the acupuncture points on the body.
This technique involves applying glass cups to the skin, which creates a suction effect. According to theory of traditional Chinese medicine, cupping helps to relieve the blood and energy stagnation in the body.
The acupuncture session may include the use of Chinese herbs in the form of tea, pills or capsules.
In some cases, acupuncturists use the electroacupuncture technique, which involves the use of an electrical device connected to two or four acupuncture needles in order to stimulate the needles with a weak electrical current.
There is also an acupuncture technique that does not require the use of needles. Instead, the acupuncture points on the body are stimulated by laser.
The typical acupuncture session lasts about 20 to 30 minutes, but sometimes it may either be as short as a few minutes, or take more than an hour. The latter rather applies to the initial visits, which often last up to 60 minutes.
Some people leave the acupuncturist’s office relaxed or even sleeping, while others have more energy than before the treatment. If something starts to worry you after the acupuncture session, you should notify your doctor.
Can Acupuncture Cause Any Side Effects?
If you decide to try acupuncture method, make sure to choose a licensed and properly trained practitioner who follows the sterility rules. Otherwise, like any other treatment, acupuncture may cause some unwanted reactions.
Potential side effects of acupuncture are not that serious and include nausea, dizziness, fainting, as well as soreness, minor bleeding, and bruising on the points where the needles are inserted. Bleeding or bruising are more likely to occur in people with a bleeding disorder, or those who are taking blood thinners.
However, when administered improperly, just one acupuncture session may lead to serious and even life-threating consequences, such as infections, nerve and blood vessel damage, needle breakage, or punctured organs. For instance, if the pleural membranes around the lungs are punctured, your lungs may collapse. Moreover, those affected by a rare anatomical variation called sternal foramen (hole in the breastbone) may have their lung or heart (pericardium) punctured. According to some reports, there is also a risk of accidentally leaving the needle inside after the treatment.
People with certain health conditions are better off avoiding acupuncture. Also, standard care should never be replaced by alternative practices like acupuncture. Otherwise, it may lead to serious consequences for your health.
The Bottom Line
When conventional methods of treatment do not seem to help, traditional methods like acupuncture may be worth a try. However, you should discuss any type of treatment you want to use, even natural, with your healthcare provider first.