The term “acupuncture” is kind of a blanket term in the United States for several forms of healing that originated in China and the Far East. Acupuncture therapy is housands of years old. Archaeological evidence suggests acupuncture may have originated in the Neolithic Age, which means this form of healing has been around for a really…really….really long time.
But that doesn’t mean it’s hopelessly out of date. Quite the contrary. The efficacy of acupuncture therapy has been proven over and over again and it has stood the test of time for thousands of years. Systems that don’t work are discarded quickly and certainly don’t hang around as long as acupuncture has. Acupuncture has been recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an effective treatment for many conditions. And this is still just a partial list.
When you hear someone say “I had acupuncture” they might be referring to a range of treatment options. Here is a quick review of some of the modalities you might encounter in an acupuncture session.
This is the obvious one and the most literal meaning. Acupuncture therapy is the insertion of very fine needles into the skin in strategic points in order to promote healing in the body. Acupuncture needles in the United States are always single-use, disposable needles. They are very thin (about the width of a human head hair in most cases) and are solid or filiform needles. No medication is injected via acupuncture needles. You can see a comparison of sizes in this graphic. The far left shows a wooden match, the middle is a standard shot needle used to give medication, and the far right shows a standard acupuncture needle. Quite a few acupuncture needles will fit inside of a shot needle.
Does it hurt?
Many people ask me if it hurts. Not usually, no. Most people are surprised at how very little they feel when they get acupuncture. You might feel a sensation when the needle is inserted, but that doesn’t mean you feel pain and even when you do the sensation usually goes away within a couple of breaths. If it doesn’t and it is uncomfortable I will adjust the needle so there is no discomfort.
Most people who haven’t tried acupuncture are a little leery about the needles. I hear you. I got allergy shots when I was a kid – lots of them – and I’ve had my share of intramuscular injections too. Having had both acupuncture and shots, I can tell you with conviction that I’ve never had an acupuncture needle that felt anything even remotely like a shot. As a matter of fact, if you feel anything at all the sensation is usually gone in a few short seconds. Most people relax so much they go to sleep during the session!
So how does it work?
From a western standpoint, acupuncture triggers the release of endorphins and chemicals crucial in the healing process which makes you feel better. But this explanation is far from adequate to explain how the healing effect lasts after the needles come out. From a Chinese medicine perspective the needles are placed at specific spots on channels or meridians – energy superhighways. This balances the flow of Qi in the body. Qi is the universal energy that flows through all of us. It flows through the body in a series of patterns that have been mapped out over the centuries. When Qi and/or blood are blocked there is disease. Acupuncture restores proper flow of Qi which in turn allows the body to heal itself as it was designed to do.
OK, but how well does it work?
The latest numbers I read say that roughly 90% of people who try acupuncture have a measurably positive effect from their acupuncture sessions. We all have unique bodies and not all of them respond the same way or at the same speed.
Most people who come in for pain, for example, report rapid results. Many begin to feel better during the treatment itself. Many people get up off the table, smile, test out their range of motion and are delighted to find that the pain is either greatly diminished or gone entirely. Sometimes people report that they feel some better the day of the treatment but then feel great the following day. I have even had a few miraculous one-time-cure results, but I have to tell you honestly that these are the exception rather than the rule!
The results you see will depend on your body constitution, how long you had a condition, whether you have had surgical interventions and/or steroid injections, whether there is any change in your condition from day to day, medications you are on, your diet, whether you exercise and what kind of exercise you do and more.
How often do I have to come back?
Not every person needs repeat visits. I often treat people during cold and flu season that need one session, some herbs, and a quick follow-up call. Many of my clients however, come in with sprains and other aches and pains, need diabetes care or other longer term care, want help with an emotional of psychological problem, etc. and will need help for a while. I don’t want you to have to keep coming to me forever. My goal is to help you get back on track, get you well, and then see you for occasional tune-ups.
How long you need to come for acupuncture healing sessions depends on your condition, your individual responses, and your lifestyle. As a general rule, the longer you have had a problem the longer it will take for your body to get back on track and heal. I compare this to driving to a destination. If you make a wrong turn, realize it, and correct the misdirection quickly you don’t lose much time, but the longer you keep going on the misdirected path the longer it will take you to get back on course.
I generally recommend that you come to see me once to twice per week for 4-8 weeks, depending on the challenge you are addressing. We then re-evaluate your progress, how well your sessions are working, and how long you feel well between sessions then form further plans. Many people see me 1ce per week for 4 weeks, then 1ce every other week for a month and then 1ce per quarter. Bear in mind that your results may vary!
Herbal medicine continues what acupuncture starts. Some health conditions and problems require more intervention on a daily basis. Because most people cannot come to acupuncture on a daily basis I will prescribe herbal medicine for these health problems. Herbal medicine helps keep you on track and further encourages the healing process. Read more here…
Cupping is another ancient therapy that is shared by almost every culture in the world. This is a negative pressure therapy. Air is removed from the cup so that it forms a suction on the surface of the skin. One of the primary uses for cupping therapy is to help resolve muscle tension and pain. Cupping moves stuck energy, blood, and fluids in the muscles. It increases blood flow to the tissues and releases endorphins, your natural ‘feel good’ and pain reduction chemicals. The combination of these actions helps release tight muscles and pain.
Another great use for cupping therapy is the stimulation of the immune system. Patients often come in at the onset of a cold, sore throat or the flu for cupping. I apply the cups to the upper back which stimulates the immune system to kick into high gear and help kill off the bacteria or viruses that are causing the illness.
Just in case you want to know the specifics, cupping does tiny amounts of damage to the tissues. Some of the surface capillaries break when cups are applied and very small amounts of blood will leak from them. This causes a cosmetic bruise (meaning the bruise doesn’t hurt, just looks “bruisy”) to form on the skin. In turn, this stimulates the body to send macrophages to the site of the blood leak. Macrophages engulf the blood cells that have left the capillaries and this in turn stimulates the rest of the immune system which then gets busy fighting the invading bacteria or viruses.
Moxibustion, also known by the nickname “moxa,” is a therapy that involves the use of tightly rolled sticks or cones of an herb called mugwort which are burned near the skin at strategic points on the body to stimulate the immune system, to release pain, to warm the interior of the body for a range of gynecological conditions, and more. It has long been used by midwives and pregnant ladies to help turn breech babies into the proper position for delivery.
Moxa heat penetrates deep into the meridians (which are like superhighways for Qi) which unblocks the flow of energy in the body and helps stimulate healing.
I’ve used moxa in my clinic to help with diabetic neuropathy, to treat chronic edema in the legs, to stimulate the immune system prior to allergy season, to help with arthritis that is triggered by cold and much much more.