Acupuncture, a medical practice based on Traditional Chinese Medicine, is carried out by an Acupuncturist who inserts thin, solid and flexible stainless steel needles into the body to help relieve a variety of symptoms and to provide pain relief. Acupuncture treatments involve stimulating specific lines, acupuncture points or neural zones on or under the skin’s surface.
Acupuncture has ancient roots. The theory and practice originated in the area that now occupies much of modern-day China. It has been an integral part of the medical practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine for more than 2,500 years. It actually may have been practised in Eurasia as early as the Stone Age, as archaeologists have unearthed early acupuncture needles made of stone and animal bone, which date back to the Stone Age.
The first written description of diagnosis and treatment using acupuncture needles appears in The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, written around 300 BC in China. The Chinese developed the practice, creating needles with bamboo, and metals like copper, silver, iron, bronze, or gold. There is some suggestion that the hypodermic needle so often used in Western medical practice was inspired from these early acupuncture needles. Contemporary acupuncture uses needles made of stainless steel, silver and gold which are considerably thinner (ranging from 0.12 to .3mm) and more flexible than their predecessors.
When discussing acupuncture, it may be helpful to understand the philosophy that the practice arises from.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, one of the body’s life forces, the energy that generally describes the function (rather than substance), is termed Qi (pronounced chee). It is understood to flow along 12 to 14 pathways called meridians, between and through the surface of the body (skin, fascia, muscle, bone) and its internal organs. An imbalance or disruption to this flow of energy can trigger illness.
It is important to understand that much of the language that is used by Acupuncturists and Chinese medicine practitioners to describe Eastern philosophy and medical knowledge is like using Shakespearean language today to describe modern medical terms. There is a lot in translation.
Traditional Chinese medicine theory claims that the human body has between 365 to 2,000 nerve-rich acupuncture points that together create pathways (meridians) of microcirculation and physiological action. Stimulating these points, zones and meridians is considered to release blockages and restore the body’s own balance. It is also a way of engaging the somatosensory system. it is often used to encourage blood circulation to an area and reduce pain.
There may not be one process that describes how acupuncture works scientifically. The body is comprised of multiple systems and therefore there may be more than one process engaged when acupuncture is given.
Numerous research studies suggest that acupuncture (and moxibustion) may activate neurohormonal pathways and trigger biochemical processes in the body. Within this view, ‘findings from basic medical research suggest that acupuncture stimulation causes the release of endorphins, serotonin, enkephalins, and γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA, a major inhibitory neurotransmitter of the brain), norepinephrine, and dopamine’ (Lu & Lu, 2013).
Acupuncture needles seem to work by stimulating the specific nerve and biochemical processes that activate the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. For example, endorphins and Beta-Endorphins work by binding to opioid receptors in your brain to block the perception of pain, similar to opioid pain medications such as oxycodone or morphine.
In other recent studies, acupuncture decreases pain by reducing pro-inflammatory markers or proteins in the body. For example, a study by Lim et al. (2016) suggests that acupuncture can decrease pro-inflammatory markers — including TNF and IL-1β — in the body, in turn lowering inflammation and reducing pain.
Another study from Zhao et al. (2015) suggests something similar in the imbalance between Th17 and Treg cells in the disruption of intestinal homeostasis in Crohn’s Disease. This study demonstrates that acupuncture and moxibustion ‘reduced the number of TH17 cells and inhibited the expression of TH17-related molecules IL-17 and RORγt in the intestinal mucosa. It also increased the number of Treg cells and the expression of Treg-specific transcription factor FOXP3, thus restoring the ratio of the two cell types’.
Under Australian law, acupuncturists must use pre-sterilised, single-use needles. These needles are crafted of solid, flexible stainless steel and are extremely fine, as thin as a strand of hair (around 0.2 mm wide), and not designed to penetrate arteries or veins. Once inserted into skin, fascia and muscle tissue, they may be stimulated through gentle or specific movements by the acupuncturist, sometimes with the help of an electronic pulse device (electroacupuncture).
Typically, needles stay in place for 25 to 40 minutes, shorter time frames for weakened or overly sensitive people, longer for chronic conditions and non-retained needling is usually done with children.
An acupuncturist may combine acupuncture with additional treatments used by Traditional Chinese Medicine. These include:
What are the benefits of acupuncture? According to an evidence-based review of clinical literature, acupuncture can assist in treating a wide number of physical, neurological, mental and emotional ailments. The ailments that have been backed up by both clinical experience and research include:
Choosing an acupuncturist can be perplexing, especially if you have never received acupuncture treatment before.
Here are some guidelines to follow:
Once you have found a potential acupuncturist, it is worthwhile to ask them the following questions to ensure they are credible and a good fit for you.
Yes. Acupuncture works well in conjunction with many other therapies and complements Western medicine. However, it is possible that a course of acupuncture may reduce your need for some medications. Therefore, it is essential that your GP is aware that you are receiving acupuncture treatments. Most medical doctors are supportive of this treatment and it is better for you if all your healthcare practitioners can work together.
Expect an in-depth interview process as your acupuncturist seeks to understand your health condition, including questions you may have never been asked before. Your acupuncturist will usually take an extensive case history, covering many aspects of your health, diet and lifestyle before making a diagnosis. Although every acupuncturist has a slightly different interviewing process based on their training and personality, there are standard questions that every acupuncturist will ask. Depending on what you are seeking treatment for, acupuncturists may sometimes ask you questions that appear irrelevant, such as questions about your sleeping quality, digestive and urinary function, sexual function, emotional quality or basic level of stress. Why? Acupuncture takes a holistic approach to health. The different systems in the body are interconnected, but acupuncture has a unique way of viewing those connections. As a result, many conditions that manifest in a specific way (such as skin or neural conditions) may, for example, stem from digestive and intestinal problems. Answering your acupuncturist’s questions honestly will increase the accuracy of diagnosis and help your acupuncturist to understand how best to treat your condition.
Yes! When taking your medical history, your acupuncturist will ask you about any medications you are taking. Your acupuncturist needs to have a complete picture of what is influencing your body and symptoms, as well as any side effects or cautions that might need to be considered. Often pulse taking is used as a diagnostic tool by your acupuncturist and some medications will affect the reading of the pulse.
Acupuncture is sought by many to provide relief from pain, not create it. Most new patients are surprised at how painless it is. When the needles are inserted, you may feel nothing at all or you may feel a mild tingling, warmth, soreness, numbness or heaviness similar to a muscle ache. Depending on what you are seeking treatment for, sometimes acupuncture can be uncomfortable, as pain and stress tend to sensitise us to more pain, but the pain of treatment will never be greater than the pain you are currently experiencing with your symptoms. A practitioner’s technique is also a factor in your experience of a painless acupuncture treatment, so choose someone who knows what they are doing.
Depending on the type of treatment you receive, you may feel very relaxed and calm or you may feel more clear-headed. Some people feel revitalised, while others feel sleepy. You may also find you experience improvements in your quality of sleep, your moods, reduced stress, improved digestion, mental clarity, and increased energy.
Adverse side effects of acupuncture in the hands of a properly trained practitioner are extremely rare and often less severe than conventional drug treatments. These may include fatigue, feeling light-headed, soreness at the insertion site, bruising, and emotional release (sensitivity and weepiness). Soreness will typically dissipate within 24 hours. However, more intensive treatments can cause soreness that may last a few days. Most acupuncturists will warn you if this is a risk before starting the treatment.
This is impossible to know for certain as everyone heals at a different rate. Most people start feeling better right away with just one or a few sessions, but others take time. Typically, more chronic conditions require a more extensive course of treatment. It is also possible, though generally unlikely, that acupuncture can stimulate or worsen current symptoms or reactivate past symptoms. Each person is unique, and each body contains a unique history of ailments and abilities. It is important to honestly discuss any symptoms, side effects, or concerns you may have with your acupuncturist.