Questions and Answers about Acupuncture

Acupuncture is a complete and scientific system of medical diagnosis and treatment developed in China beginning over 3,000 years ago. Because of its history of safety and effectiveness, acupuncture is now practiced worldwide, and has become the subject of modern scientific investigation. Scientific research is confirming acupuncture’s physiologic basis and clinical efficacy.

Q: How does acupuncture work? What are its benefits? 
Chinese Medicine considers that health depends upon the continuous and unobstructed circulation of blood and “qi” (pronounced “chee,” and often translated as “vital air” or “energy”) throughout the body. The genius of the ancient Chinese physicians was to discover that the tiny stimulus of inserting fine needles could regulate the flow of q” and blood and bring about powerful therapeutic effects by using the body’s own regulatory systems and self-healing potential. Stimulation of acupuncture nodes with needles, heat, pressure, electricity, or other means initiates a complex cascade of subtle but powerful neural, vascular, endocrine, lymphatic, and immunological responses that together result in:

•    Pain reduction
•    Muscle relaxation
•    Restoration of blood flow to limbs and organs
•    Normalization of organ activity
•    Reduction of inflammation and swelling
•    Tissue and wound healing
•    Enhanced immune response
•    Increased joint range-of-motion
•    Stress reduction and mood enhancement

The net effect of these processes restores both local and systemic “homeostasis:” the body’s normal state of dynamic, balanced function.  

General improvements in health status have been observed in conjunction with acupuncture treatment. For example, a study of 762 patients who received 6 acupuncture treatments in an outpatient setting showed significant improvements in 7 of 8 outcome measures (General health, Bodily pain, Vitality, Social functioning, Mental health, and Roles-physical and -emotional ) compared with a no-treatment control group.

General improvement in health status is consistent with models of the physiologic basis of acupuncture that indicate therapeutic effects through a wide range of mechanisms and body systems. The ability of acupuncture to regulate sympathetic/parasympathetic imbalances and promote immune function may account for its general clinical benefits.

The full potential of acupuncture and its supplementary Chinese medical modalities is to bring about more harmonious functioning and general well-being. As patients heal during acupuncture treatment, they often describe profound feelings of peace, clarity, and self-awareness. With repeated treatment, this sense of wellness may become increasingly the norm experienced by the patient in their daily life and functioning.

Q: Is acupuncture safe? What about side effects? 
With modern sterile, single-use, disposable needles, acupuncture has an outstanding safety record. The NIH report states: “one of the advantages of acupuncture is that the incidence of adverse effects is substantially lower than that of many drugs or other accepted medical procedures used for the same conditions.”
Rarely, patients experience temporary, mild worsening of symptoms before improvements begin to occur. Often the relaxing effects of acupuncture are so profound that patients feel a greater sense of well being and vitality.

Q: What does Acupuncture feel like? 
Acupuncture needles are very different from hypodermic needles used for injections or blood sampling; they are twenty times smaller and generally painless. Patients typically have little or no sensation of the acupuncture needle insertion when applied by a trained practitioner.
To obtain a therapeutic response, needles are manipulated until the patient feels a light distending, cramping, warmth, or tingling around the insertion site. Sometimes these sensations are felt to travel along pathways in the body. The sensation typically subsides within seconds, but may be re-enforced through manual or electrical stimulation of needles (barely perceptible milli- or micro-amps).

Q: What is an acupuncture treatment like? 
Acupuncture diagnosis and treatment begins with a detailed interview to obtain information about the patient’s medical history, symptoms and goals for treatment. The acupuncturist proceeds to perform a physical examination that begins with taking vital signs (pulse, blood pressure, etc.). The acupuncturist then inspects and carefully palpates the disease or injury site, and/or acupuncture vessels associated with the affected area. Special tests may be conducted to further define the nature and cause of the condition. The practitioner may also inspect the patient’s tongue and feel the qualities of the radial pulse, which give important clues to the patient’s overall health status. 
Information gathered from the interview and examination is used to reach a diagnosis and formulate a treatment plan. If acupuncture is indicated, the practitioner chooses a combination of related nodes at locations that may include the limbs, torso, and head.

Acupuncture is usually performed with a patient lying comfortably on a treatment table. The acupuncturist inserts typically from four to a dozen needles at the chosen locations. After the needles are manipulated for a few seconds to produce a therapeutic stimulus, they are retained while the patient lies quietly for 15-30 minutes. Supplementary techniques may also be performed, including:
    •    warming of the needling sites with an infrared lamp, hot packs, or a smoldering Chinese herb called moxa;
    •    applying friction (gua sha), suction, or herbal liniments or plasters to the skin;
Chinese medical massage (tui na and acupressure).
Following a treatment, your practitioner may also recommend traditional Chinese herbal and dietary remedies, as well as exercises and stretches (taiji, qi gong, dao yin).

Q: How many treatments are necessary? 
After the initial consultation, your acupuncturist will explain your diagnosis and discuss a treatment plan, including number of visits, expected benefits, costs, risks, and alternative treatments. The number of treatments required varies with each patient and their condition. 
Symptomatic relief is often felt during the first treatment. In many conditions, significant and lasting improvement is evident by the 3rd or 4th treatment, or even sooner. Chronic or complex conditions may require 1-3 treatments per week for several months. More recent conditions may be effectively resolved after only a few treatments. Q: What does modern research say about acupuncture efficacy? In 1997, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued a consensus report that concluded “The data in support of acupuncture are as strong as those for many accepted Western Medical therapies…There is sufficient evidence of acupuncture’s value to expand its use into conventional medicine and to encourage further studies of its physiology and clinical value” (NIH 1997) .

Q: Is belief necessary for acupuncture to work?
No. Beneficial effects of acupuncture have been demonstrated on animals and children, as well as on adults who have never received acupuncture before. Other studies have shown that acupuncture effects are not dependent on psychosocial variables . As with any medical modality, a positive and open attitude towards healing can only serve to re-enforce the therapeutic outcome.
Acupuncture can be used as a stand-alone treatment, or may be safely combined with other Chinese medical or conventional Western treatments. Patients are advised not to quit their current treatments without discussion with the physician who prescribed that care.

Q: What are acupuncture “points” and “channels?”
 Ancient Chinese studies identified over 600 sensitive sites on the surface of the body that reflect internal disease states, and can be stimulated for pain relief and other benefits. Modern science has found that these sites (usually called “points” or “nodes”) have special properties including higher electrical conductance and inter-cellular communication, and a greater density of fine neural, vascular, and lymphatic structures. Working through the neural and vascular systems and through organizing networks in the body’s electrical field, the nodes regulate muscles, blood vessels, lymphatics, organs, and the body’s biochemical and hormonal balance.

Q: What is the role of acupuncture in modern healthcare? 
The extensive history of clinical usage, and the excellent safety record, make acupuncture a reasonable complementary treatment for almost all diseases and conditions. Acupuncture has almost no known contraindications, and is not reported to interfere with other treatment modalities. It may be safely used to complement and enhance other treatments, and to reduce the adverse side effects and complications that are sometimes associated with surgery, pharmaceuticals, and other more invasive procedures. 

For some conditions, conventional treatments may be contraindicated or deemed undesirable because of risks of inadequate or even adverse outcomes. Patients’ prior medical history and experience may also indicate that they are not likely to respond well to certain conventional therapies. In these cases, acupuncture is a reasonable alternative. Acupuncture is a safe and conservative first-line treatment choice, not only for those conditions where its efficacy has been proved, but also where the efficacy, safety, or appropriateness or other therapies is in doubt.

Increasingly, acupuncture is being practiced in integrative medical settings in conjunction with conventional therapies. For example, acupuncture may combine with conventional therapies to reduce post-surgical pain and swelling, and increase range-of-motion. Using acupuncture lowers the need for pain-killing drugs and thus reduces the risk of adverse drug effects. The NIH report states: “One of the advantages of acupuncture is that the incidence of adverse effects is substantially lower than that of many drugs or other accepted medical procedures used for the same conditions” (NIH 1997).