Though its roots lie in ancient Chinese medicine, acupuncture has become more popular in modern times for the variety of health benefits it can bring. The practice is based on the premise that any disturbance to or blockage of the flow of energy, or qi (pronounced “chee”), can cause disease, discomfort or other health issues. Acupuncturists insert hair-thin needles on specific points on the body that sit along energy channels, called meridians, to restore the body’s flow of energy, creating balance and encouraging good health. Many people use acupuncture in conjunction with other, western treatments for a variety of health concerns, and some find that the treatment alone helps ease their symptoms.
How Acupuncture Works
Scientists do not understand exactly how acupuncture works physiologically, but they are starting to identify some of the mechanisms, including how sticking needles into designated acupuncture points speeds up the conduction of electromagnetic signals within the body. Initial research suggests that these signals may promote the release of endorphins, pain-relieving chemicals, and immune system cells, which aid healing. Acupuncture can also make you feel more relaxed, helping to improve stress and possibly even reduce blood pressure.
Acupuncture and Health Conditions
Though acupuncture studies have not been definitive in proving health benefits, which many say is due to the size of the studies, the research that has been done is encouraging. And, centuries of anecdotal evidence of its benefits certainly cannot be overlooked.
Every year new research looks at acupuncture’s effectiveness in treating everything from asthma to post-surgery pain to depression. Here, a round-up of just some interesting findings on how acupuncture can improve various health issues:
- Arthritis: According to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, people with osteoarthritis of the knee who underwent acupuncture once a week for about six months reported a 40 percent decrease in pain and a nearly 40 percent improvement in function compared to those who received fake acupuncture.
- Back Pain: A review of high-quality clinical trials of acupuncture for postoperative pain, published in the British Journal of Anaesthesia, demonstrated that patients who received acupuncture experienced a decrease in pain intensity and number of side effects from opioid medications (such as nausea and water retention) compared to people who didn’t receive treatment. The clinical treatment guidelines for persistent back pain by the American Pain Society and the American College of Physicians includes acupuncture as a treatment option.
- Digestive Health: A couple of small studies suggest that acupuncture may relieve symptoms by stimulating healthy gastrointestinal processes and inhibiting acid secretion in the stomach. You may also find acupuncture soothing, which may help reduce discomfort.
- Infertility: A German study found that acupuncture increases pregnancy rates for women undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF). Eighty women were given acupuncture 25 minutes before and after embryo transfer; another 80 were not. The pregnancy rate of those who received acupuncture was 42.5 percent, as opposed to 26.3 percent for the other group.
- Migraines: In a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, those who received acupuncture reported a significant reduction in the number of days they suffered from a migraine.
- Premenstrual Symptoms: Research published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that women who received acupuncture (15 sessions over three months) endured less menstrual cramp-related pain compared to a group of women who didn’t receive the treatment.
What to Expect from Acupuncture
You should arrive wearing loose, comfortable clothing, which you will keep on during your session. At the beginning of your acupuncture appointment, your practitioner will ask you to fill out forms or verbally answer questions about your health history and the reasons you are seeking treatment. She will likely take your pulse and examine your tongue for color and any coating. (In Chinese medicine, the tongue is considered a map of the body, reflecting the health of your organ and meridian systems.) All of this intel will be used to identify where you may have energy blockages.
Your acupuncturist will then place tiny, sterilized metal needles along your meridians at various depths, according to where your blockages lie. You will feel a tiny, quick prick, sometimes followed by a tingling, numb or achy sensation. You will usually be left alone for 15 to 30 minutes with the needles; the room may be kept dark or candlelit, and music may be played to set the stage for a relaxing experience.
The number of needles used typically varies from five to 15. Placement will change from one session to the next in response to your condition, and the practitioner may twist the needles or apply a weak electrical current for added effect. Some people report feeling tired, “spacey” or very relaxed after a session. Others report feeling energized. Still others don’t notice much difference in how they feel at all. There is no right or wrong—every person is different, and so is every session.
Seeing improvement in the issue you’re being treated for could take a single session, weeks or even months of regular acupuncture. Your practitioner will talk to you about how you are responding and customize treatment for you along the way.
Finding an Acupuncturist
Training to become a licensed Chinese medicine practitioner requires a five year Master of Science degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The training to be a licensed acupuncturist is a two–three year Master level program. You can search for an acupuncturist in your area and view his or her certification and credentials at the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine's website. A few states, such as California and New Mexico, administer their own separate intensive licensing exams because Chinese Medicine practitioners can be primary care providers in those states.