- Scientific research has discovered how acupuncture works.
The classical Chinese explanation of how acupuncture works is that the needles influence the channels of energy that circulate in regular patterns through the body and over its surface. The modern scientific explanation is that needling the acupuncture points stimulates the nervous system to release chemicals such as endogenous opioids in the muscles, spinal cord, and brain. These chemicals either change the experience of discomfort or trigger the release of other chemicals and hormones which influence the body’s own internal regulating system. Acupuncture has also been found to decrease inflammation by increasing the production of anti-inflammatory macrophages and downregulating inflammatory pathways of the immune system.
- Acupuncture treats more than just pain.
A common misconception is that acupuncture is only useful for the treatment of muscular or joint pain. While acupuncture is indeed effective for reducing all types of pain, there is much more to the story. Licensed acupuncturists have extensive training in both external and internal medicine and can effectively treat illnesses of the respiratory, digestive, circulatory, cardiovascular, urinary, reproductive, skeletal, and nervous systems. The World Health Organization has recognized the effectiveness of acupuncture for over 100 specific conditions ranging from asthma and the common cold to IBS and infertility.
- There is more than 1 kind of acupuncture needle.
Acupuncture needles are made of sterile stainless steel and discarded after a single use. They are extremely thin; about the width of a human hair. As shown in the diagram below, the average acupuncture needle is 0.25 mm, which is 112 times thinner than a medical syringe. However, some acupuncture needles are even thinner (0.16 mm) and can be used on sensitive patients to prevent them from feeling any sensation on needle insertion. Needles also come in a variety of lengths. The average needle length is one inch, and only a small portion of that goes beneath the tissue. For an acupuncture point on a body area without much musculature, the practitioner may use a very short needle that is inserted only a few millimeters. Longer needles are used for larger areas like the hips to treat muscle pain or sciatica.
- Simple needle insertion isn’t enough.
Acupuncturists do more than just insert needles in points in order to treat symptoms. A great deal of care is put in to selecting the most appropriate points for each patient. One patient with a headache may receive a completely different set of points from another person with a similar headache, because acupuncturists know that a headache can be caused by a variety of underlying patterns. Additionally, pain in an area is not always treated with points in that area. A patient with back pain may find that their acupuncturist uses points on the arms and legs instead of points on the back. There are various styles of treatment and a multitude of different approaches to solving the same problem. Furthermore, once the points are chosen and needled, the practitioner must also stimulate the needle appropriately to achieve the goal of either tonifying (nourishing) or sedating (dispersing) energy. The practitioner may choose to add extra stimulation in the form of mild electrical current (E-Stim) or heat therapy to boost the effect of needling the points.
- Everyone that practices acupuncture does NOT have the same amount of training.
Licensed acupuncturists are required to have at least 3,000 hours of acupuncture training from an accredited graduate program, which translates to an average of 4 years of full-time training that includes supervised clinical internship. Acupuncturists also sit for rigorous National Board Certification exams through the NCCAOM, in addition to any other extra requirements that vary by state. By contrast, some other professionals may practice a form of acupuncture under their licenses as physical therapists or medical doctors. In these cases, practitioners receive approximately 50-200 hours of abbreviated training that does not include the nuanced training in channel theory, ethics, and safety. For this reason, many patients choose to work with practitioners who are trained solely in Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine. Look for the letters “L.Ac.” after your practitioner’s name to designate an extensively trained licensed acupuncturist.
- You don’t have to believe in acupuncture for it to work.
Some people have the misconception that acupuncture is religious, partly because some practitioners describe it as treating the body, mind, and spirit. This is a miscommunication, based on the idea that many acupuncture points are used to “calm the spirit,” which actually refers to calming the emotions. It is true that acupuncture can be used to balance the emotions and increase one’s sense of wellbeing, but it is not done through religious means. Acupuncture is a medical tool backed by scientific research. Much of this research has explored whether the effects of acupuncture are attributable to the placebo effect. Many rigorous studies have used double-blind control groups to find whether “sham acupuncture” (placebo) has the same effect as true acupuncture. The results of these studies show that the effect of acupuncture is in fact significant and not due to placebo. Therefore, skeptics should feel free to try it out and see how it works for them. Many such skeptics come to their first treatment expecting no results, and are surprised to find significant relief. These are the patients who happily say, “if it works, it works!”
By Lily House, L.Ac.
Acu-Na Wellness Center
Da Silva, M.D., et al. (2014). IL-10 Cytokine Released from M2 Macrophages Is Crucial for
Analgesic and Anti-inflammatory Effects of Acupuncture in a Model of Inflammatory Muscle Pain. Molecular Neurobiology. 1-13.
Zhao, Z.Q. Neural mechanism underlying acupuncture analgesia. Progress in Neurobiology,
(2008). 85: 355–375.