A healing technique with a 5000-year history, acupuncture is arguably one of the oldest alternative therapies used today. It is one of the most studied treatments in the world. Its recorded efficacy has probed researchers to learn more about its mechanisms and why it is so effective at treating such a wide range of conditions.
How Does Acupuncture Work?
The healing practice of acupuncture is rooted in the ancient Chinese concept of “Qi”. Practitioners believe that qi is the life force that governs health and general wellness. In healthy individuals, this energy flows freely throughout the body. When the flow is disrupted, health problems arise.
Qi flows in a meridian network, which can be accessed via 12 major points in the body. These points are called “acupoints” and lie just beneath the skin. Because acupoints are connected to internal organs and glands, applying pressure can help correct malfunctions in the system and restore health.
The acupuncture meridian system has been a topic of scientific study since the 1950s, and findings indicate that it does in fact exist. A study conducted in the 1970s by biophysicist Maria Reichmanis and Dr. Robert Becker demonstrated higher levels of electrical current at identified acupoints.
The insertion of needles at these points altered the flow of the current, either improving its course, impeding it or changing its direction.
Traditionally, acupuncturists apply pressure to acupoints by inserting small needles in the skin. Over the years however, versions of acupuncture that use touch, heat, sound waves and other methods have been developed. A thousand more acupoints have also been discovered in recent decades.
Types Of Acupuncture
Acupuncture has spawned a number of similar alternative therapies based on both original Chinese philosophy and modern research findings. These treatments also utilize the meridian system but have replaced needles with other devices and means.
Acupressure is a version of acupuncture that accesses acupoints to improve qi flow by touch instead of needles. Although it is best administered by practitioners, it can also be practiced at home to relieve common health problems such as headaches, toothaches and mild pain in other areas of the body.
With sonopuncture, sound beams are used to stimulate and manipulate qi. Practitioners may use an assortment of devices to project high-frequency sound waves into acupuncture points to treat an illness.
Moxibustion works the same way as traditional acupuncture, except an herb called moxa is burned into or close to acupoints instead of inserting needles.
Moxa can be applied in several different ways. Some alternative practitioners burn the herb directly into an acupuncture point, and others burn it close to it to access your qi. A practitioner can also wrap the herb around the top of needles used in acupuncture. The technique used depends on the patient’s needs and sensitivities.
Auriculotherapy can be best described as acupuncture (or acupressure) that focuses on points on the ear. Auricular acupoints are not just used to treat ear problems, but can cure many other health conditions as well.
As technologies advance and new techniques are discovered, more and more acupuncturists are replacing traditional needles with other means. It is not uncommon for practitioners to use water and steroid injections in their treatments as well.
Reflexology is similar to acupuncture in that it applies pressure to certain points in the body to affect organ function. However, the two practices do not use the same pressure points. Instead of using the acupuncture meridian, reflexologists have their own “maps” detailing the correspondence between points and organs.
Another major difference between acupuncture and reflexology is that the latter is focused on pressure points in the feet, hands and ears. Practitioners also use a variety of massage techniques to apply pressure instead of needles.
Conditions Treated by Acupuncture
The list of health conditions acupuncture (and its versions) treats grows every year. While some conditions have been verified, others are pending due to ongoing clinical trials and research studies.
Some of the illnesses acupuncture has been proven to treat include:
Arthritis, tendinitis, muscle pain, sprains, neck and back pain, fibromyalgia, stiffness, muscle weakness, contractures and sciatica
Migraines and headaches, bladder problems, spinal disc disorders, facial palsy (early stage), Meniere’s disease, paresis, enuresis, neuralgia and cervicobranchial syndrome
Asthma, sinusitis, bronchitis, tonsillitis, rhinitis, colds and flu
Abnormal menstruation, PMS, infertility, menopause syndrome, benign amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea
Irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, diarrhea, colitis, gastritis, duodenal ulcer, esophagus spasms, gastroptosis, ileus, bacillary dysentery
Addiction, depression, anxiety, insomnia, PTSD, OCD, somatization disorder
Very few alternative therapies enjoy the research attention given to acupuncture. Since it arrived on American shores in the 1800s, the health industry has been fascinated by its efficiency, testing its healing power against a range of ailments.
In 1996, the acupuncture needle gained formal recognition by the FDA as a medical instrument. This qualified the practice as part of mainstream health care, and it has been employed to treat many diseases ever since.
Acupuncture has proven to be an effective therapy for pain management, aiding in the production and release of endorphins and enkephalins . One of the biggest clinical trials conducted was at the University of California, where over 20,000 patients experienced a reduction in the intensity and frequency of headaches and migraines .
Another study of 200 patients revealed acupuncture’s ability to reduce chronic neck pain over a three-week period. Patients with myofascial pain syndrome and postop dental pain also experienced similar results .
Studies championed by Dr. Holder, Dr. Grossbard, Dr. Cargile, Dr. Wu Bo Ping and many other noted physicians show acupuncture to be beneficial in reducing symptoms associated with HIV and AIDS . In as little as five weeks to three months, patients experienced significant improvement in T-cell counts, fatigue, night disturbances and general quality of life.
The uses of acupuncture extend to mental health, showing considerable promise in the treatment of depression, insomnia, Alzheimer’s and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) . Patients who underwent acupuncture treatment showed an improvement in cognitive function, verbal skills, and social interaction.
Many countries around the world are formally considering adding acupuncture to addiction treatment programs. A study published in a 1989 edition of The Lancet reported a decrease in readmissions of chronic alcoholics to treatment centers after receiving acupuncture sessions .
Further studies suggested that acupuncture could facilitate the recovery of heroin and cocaine addicts, as well as cigarette smokers . To date, around 300 substance abuse programs use acupuncture as part of treatment.
A typical acupuncture session can last 20 to 30 minutes, and begins with an interview about a patient’s medical history, diet and daily habits. Practitioners usually ask patients to fill out a form to collect this information.
Professionals generally perform an evaluation of skin, urine and tongue. After making a diagnosis, the practitioner will proceed with inserting needles or using other devices to address the ailment.
Depending on the severity of the condition, patients may need one or several sessions. Treatment is painless in most cases but mild discomfort is not uncommon.