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Is Acupuncture Helpful?

One of the topics that I am frequently asked about is acupuncture. What is acupuncture, exactly? How does it work? What conditions are acupuncture helpful for? How is it different from acupressure? Does it hurt?

What follows is a summary of how I typically answer these questions.

What is acupuncture, exactly?

Acupuncture is a system of health care that involves placing needles in specific locations throughout your body, usually for 15 to 60 minute treatment sessions. Over thousands of years, practitioners have learned through trial and error that placing needles in specific locations and combinations can help improve various health conditions.

How does it work?

There are two main approaches and schools of thought:

Acupuncturists who are trained with the classical Chinese approach believe that the flow of energy within your body can become obstructed or unbalanced due to various emotional and physical stressors. These practitioners place acupuncture needles in specific locations on your body with the goal of restoring full and balanced energy flow. They believe that optimal flow of energy within your body is what will allow you to be as healthy as possible.

How do acupuncturists trained in the classical Chinese approach decide where to place their needles for specific health conditions? They analyze your pulse rate and the colour and texture of your tongue and combine this information with a complex system of evaluating your physiology and its relationship to five elements in nature. I don't have formal training with this approach and have to say that despite reading about it extensively and discussing it thoroughly with practitioners who have used it for decades, this system isn't rooted in enough human physiology that I understand for me to feel comfortable using it to treat people.

I don't doubt that acupuncture applied by a practitioner using the classical Chinese approach can be helpful, even miraculously so. My personal belief is that many of the benefits that come about from this approach are mainly due to the physiological effects that properly placed acupuncture needles can provide, and less due to an accurate and reliable system of evaluating the energy flow in your body or the relationship between your organs and elements in nature.

Acupuncturists who are trained in contemporary medical acupuncture believe that properly placed acupuncture needles can improve blood circulation and neural tone in your body, which can accelerate recovery from various health conditions. This contemporary approach is also called a neuro-anatomical approach, reflecting the idea that needle placement is guided by a practitioner's knowledge of human anatomy and neurology.

Neuro-anatomical acupuncture works on the same basis as massage therapy, with acupuncture needles serving as extensions of the practitioner's hands. A practitioner can apply massage techniques with his or her hands to improve blood circulation in most of your muscles, but he or she would have a much harder time reaching some of your deeper muscles, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels, nerves, and even joint surfaces with his or her hands. With knowledge of the precise locations of these deeper tissues, particularly your blood vessels and nerves, neuro-anatomical acupuncturists can use needles to stimulate these deeper areas and improve blood flow and neural tone in them.

Which conditions are acupuncture helpful for?

Acupuncture is helpful for all conditions that can benefit from improved blood flow and nerve supply. For example, people who have chronic knee, hip, and shoulder stiffness can experience a dramatic improvement in their range of motion following just one well executed treatment.

Acupuncture can help restore balance to the autonomic system and can therefore be effective in treating problems associated with the immune and endocrine systems.

Acupuncture can also provide pain relief by stimulating production of natural pain killers, such as endorphins and enkephalins.

Ultimately, acupuncture can be beneficial in every case where the person receiving treatment has faith that it will help, due to the powerful connection between mind and body.

An important point to keep in mind is that while acupuncture can help improve blood flow and nerve supply to different regions of your body and result in significant health improvement, the benefits will only last as long as your food and lifestyle choices support these improvements. Put another way, acupuncture can help you recover from various health conditions, but in order to experience lasting benefits, you must address the food and lifestyle choices that originally led to your health problems.

Back when I was taking a post graduate course in contemporary medical acupuncture, I remember a world renowned professor starting one of his lectures by saying how he could use his skills as an acupuncturist to allow his patients to enjoy large amounts of coffee. His reasoning was that even though caffeine isn't good for health, through acupuncture treatments, a person could still enjoy coffee on a regular basis.

To me, this approach to health care is really the same as using drugs to suppress uncomfortable symptoms, just minus the side effects of the drugs.

Rather than use acupuncture treatments regularly to recover from health problems that were created by your food and lifestyle choices, doesn't it make more sense to use acupuncture to help you recover, and then to maintain good health through your daily choices? I'm confident that few retired practitioners would disagree with the notion that what you choose to eat, do, and think each day have far more impact on your overall health than a few acupuncture treatments each week or month.

How is acupuncture different from acupressure?

Acupuncture can allow stimulation of deeper structures that are sometimes impossible to reach with acupressure. However, acupressure can be highly effective if you know how to massage the right areas of your body, a skill that almost anyone can develop with a little practice. If you are interested in learning more about how to apply acupressure to yourself and others, I recommend reading Acupressure's Potent Points.

Does acupuncture hurt?

It depends mainly on how careful your practitioner is. Over the years, I've received acupuncture treatments from dozens of practitioners of varying ages and practice styles, and the only factor that I've been able to identify that consistently determines how comfortable or uncomfortable treatments are is how much the practitioner cares about taking his or her time.

Sometimes, no matter how careful a practitioner is, there will be a sharp pain or aching sensation during treatment that can last anywhere from an instant to several minutes. This is because acupuncture needles can sometimes touch a nerve in a way that inevitably creates some discomfort. Some acupuncturists like to say that an acupuncture needle hitting a nerve shouldn't cause any pain because it's just like a sewing needle going through a ball of yarn. The ball of yarn metaphor sure sounds beautiful, particularly to people who are first learning about acupuncture, but all it takes is one twinge of pain during a treatment session to realize that it doesn't hold true all of the time.

A careful practitioner will insert each needle slowly, and will pause for a few seconds or even a minute as soon as the patient reports any pain. This can help to minimize further discomfort because a slight pause can allow the tissues surrounding the needle to relax, allowing for a smoother entrance and less irritation of surrounding nerves.

One other factor that determines how much discomfort you might experience during treatment is the thickness of the practitioner's needles. Nowadays, many practitioners use needles that are about as thin as a human hair. These needles are a lot more comfortable than thicker needles that are regularly used by some practitioners.

Some people have been trained to believe that pain is just a part of receiving acupuncture treatments. I equate this with most people believing that it's normal to look like a chipmunk after you get wisdom teeth extracted. A dentist friend of mine explained to me several years ago that many people swell up after they get their wisdom teeth taken out because some oral surgeons don't do their work as slowly and carefully as they could. If done with care, my friend explained that very little swelling occurs, sometimes none at all.

Bringing it all together

My experience has been that acupuncture can be a powerful tool to facilitate health recovery. Ideally, acupuncture should be used to help you recover from chronic health challenges that can benefit from improved blood circulation and nerve supply throughout your body. Once you experience these benefits from acupuncture, take heart in knowing that in consistently making healthy food and lifestyle choices, you can likely maintain positive changes without frequent acupuncture treatments.

I hope these thoughts prove to be helpful. If you have any specific questions on acupuncture or acupressure that haven't been answered here, please feel free to send them to me via our contact form.


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