Acupuncture: What It Is, How It Works, & Its Benefits

Many people think of acupuncture as a stress reduction technique—a technique that involves placing needles into certain parts of the body to calm the mind—or as a way to relieve pain by touching on the body’s “trigger points.” In general terms, they’re right, but acupuncture is much more complex than that. The ancient Chinese healing technique boasts benefits for a range of health applications.1

What is acupuncture?

For 3,000 years, acupuncture has been an integral part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).1 Chinese medicine is rooted in an ancient philosophy where the universe and the body are viewed from the perspective of two opposing forces known as yin and yang.1 Practitioners of TCM believe the body is healthy when these forces are in balance—and this is where “qi” (pronounced “chee”) comes in.

In simple terms, acupuncture is seen as a way to balance the flow of qi—that is, the flow of energy through pathways, or meridians, in the body.2 A balanced qi is thought to have restorative effects; in fact, many TCM specialists believe illness, pain, and stress occur when the patient’s qi is blocked.

Acupuncture enhances the body’s natural functions and stimulates the healing process by tapping into various pressure points in the body.1 Also known as acupoints, these areas are seen as crucial to our health and wellbeing.

By targeting specific acupoints to stimulate the body’s natural healing response, research indicates acupuncture can play a role in reducing blocked qi.2 Generally, practitioners stimulate the acupoints by inserting fine, sterilized needles into the skin. Acupuncture needles may be combined with heat, pressure, or even electrical stimulation to strengthen the effects of the treatment.1

Studies have been conducted on acupuncture’s positive effects on the nervous, endocrine, immune, cardiovascular, and digestive systems, among other body systems.2 Ultimately, acupuncture stimulates these systems, resolves pain, and enhances sleep, digestive functions, and our overall sense of wellbeing.2 The benefits of acupuncture treatments are extensive.

Is acupuncture safe?

If the idea of placing needles into the skin makes you uneasy, there’s no need to worry: Acupuncture is safe when done correctly.3 The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave the treatment its stamp of approval in the United States by classifying acupuncture needles as medical devices in 1996.4

In 2007, it was reported that over 14 million people in the US had reportedly tried acupuncture,6 which today is often covered by a variety of insurance policies.

What can I expect during treatment?

No matter the reason for your appointment, the process should be fairly straightforward. Patients begin by sitting down with their acupuncturist and going over their medical history.2 In most cases, the acupuncturist will also conduct a physical examination, with a focus on the following:

  • Any areas that are painful
  • The color, coating, and shape of the tongue
  • The color of the face
  • The strength and rhythm of the pulse in the wrist

This initial evaluation will help the practitioner determine the best course of treatment for the patient’s needs.

When it comes to the treatment itself, the patient lies on a table while the acupuncturist identifies the specific acupoints to target.7 (It’s worth noting that these areas might not be near the actual pain points.)

Next, the practitioner gently inserts hair-thin, sterilized needles into the acupoints at various depths. The needles are so thin that they rarely cause discomfort—some people don’t even feel them, although others experience a slight aching sensation.7 Usually, between 5 and 20 needles are used during each treatment.

The acupuncturist may move or twirl the needles during the session. Then, after 10 to 20 minutes of the patient’s lying still with the needles in place, the practitioner carefully removes them.7 The number of recommended treatments may vary, but most acupuncture plans consist of one or two appointments per week over the course of several months.1

What should I do before making an appointment?

Acupuncture isn’t right for everyone—and patients should consult their doctor before making an appointment. Specifically, patients who have a pacemaker, take certain medications, experience chronic skin issues, have a bleeding disorder, or are pregnant may face greater risks, and should discuss these risks with a medical professional before giving acupuncture a try.2

Here are some things to keep in mind before making an appointment with an acupuncturist:3

  • Consider the success rate of using acupuncture to treat your medical condition. Talk to your healthcare practitioner, in advance, about whether acupuncture might help your particular health issue.
  • Review your acupuncturist’s training and credentials before booking a session. Note that there are more than 16,000 licensed acupuncturists in the US and more than 3,000 licensed medical doctors who offer acupuncture as a part of their practice.7
  • Keep in mind that most states require a license to practice acupuncture and that you should go to someone reputable for the best—and safest—results. Unless explicitly stated, remember that acupuncture is not a replacement for other treatments and therapies.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes more than 40 medical issues that can be successfully treated at least in part by acupuncture.7 Gastrointestinal, gynecological, and respiratory conditions, as well as chronic pain, are just some of the health problems the technique can address.

This content is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Individuals should always consult with their healthcare professional for advice on medical issues.

References:

  1. University of California, San Diego School of Medicine Staff. How Acupuncture Can Relieve Pain and Improve Sleep, Digestion and Emotional Well-Being. Center for Integrative Medicine. 2019. Accessed January 17, 2019.
  2. Mayo Clinic Staff. Acupuncture. Mayo Clinic (n.d.). Accessed January 17, 2019.
  3. David K. Why Does Acupuncture Work? WebMD (May 19, 2016). Accessed January 16, 2019.
  4. Weiss R. FDA Upgrades Acupuncture Needles’ Status. Washington Post, reprinted for the Los Angeles Times (March 30, 1996). Accessed January 17, 2019.
  5. NIH Continuing Medical Education Team. NIH Consensus Development Conference on Acupuncture. National Institutes of Health. 1997;15(5):1-34.
  6. Yan Z et al. Acupuncture Use Among American Adults: What Acupuncture Practitioners Can Learn from NIH Survey 2007? Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2012;710750:8 pages.
  7. Cleveland Clinic Staff. How Does Acupuncture Work? Cleveland Clinic. 2016. Accessed January 17, 2019.

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