What is Acupuncture?
An acupuncturist will place needles into an individual's body with the goal of balancing their energy. This, it is claimed, can help improve wellbeing and might treat some illnesses. Conditions it is used for include different kinds of pain, such as headaches, blood pressure problems, and whooping cough, among others.
How Does it Work?
Traditional Chinese medicine explains that health is the outcome of a harmonious balance of the complementary extremes of "yin" and "yang" of the life force referred to as "qi," pronounced "chi." Illness is said to be the outcome of an imbalance of the forces.
Qi is claimed to flow via meridians, or pathways, in the human body. These meridians and energy flows are accessible with 350 acupuncture points in the body.
Inserting needles into these points with appropriate combinations is said to bring the energy flow back into proper balance.
There is no scientific proof that the meridians of acupuncture points exist, and it is hard to confirm that they either do or do not, but numerous studies claim that acupuncture helps some disorders.
Some experts have used neuroscience to explain acupuncture. Acupuncture points are seen as areas where nerves, muscles, and connective tissue can be stimulated. The stimulation increases blood circulation, while at the same time triggering the activity of the body's natural painkillers.
It is hard to develop investigations using proper scientific controls, due to the intrusive nature of acupuncture. In a clinical study, a control group would have to receive sham treatment, or a placebo, for results to be compared to those of legitimate acupuncture.
Some studies have concluded that acupuncture provides similar benefits to a patient as a placebo, but others have indicated that there are some genuine benefits.
Research performed in Germany has suggested that acupuncture might help alleviate tension headaches and migraines.
The NCCIH note that it has been proven to help in cases of:
- Low back pain
- Neck pain
- Knee pain
- Headache and migraine
They list more disorders that might benefit from acupuncture, but which require additional scientific confirmation.
In 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) listed a number of disorders in which they say acupuncture has been proven effective.
- High and low blood pressure
- Chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting
- Some stomach conditions, including peptic ulcer
- Painful periods
- Allergic rhinitis
- Facial pain
- Morning sickness
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Tennis elbow
- Dental pain
- Reducing the risk of stroke
- Inducing labor
Other disorders for which the WHO claim that acupuncture might help but more evidence is required consist of:
- Postoperative convalescence
- Substance, tobacco and alcohol dependence
- Spine pain
- Stiff neck
- Vascular dementia
- Whooping cough, or pertussis
- Tourette syndrome
The WHO also says that it may help treat a number of infections, including some urinary tract infections and epidemic hemorrhagic fever.
Acupuncture can be helpful in that:
- Done correctly, it is safe.
- There are very few side effects.
- It can be effectively combined with other treatments.
- It can control some kinds of pain.
- It might help patients for whom pain medications are not well-suited.
What to Expect
According to traditional Chinese medical theory, acupuncture points are located on meridians, through which vital energy runs. This energy is known as "qi" or "chi."
An acupuncturist will examine the patient and evaluate their condition, insert one or more thin, sterile needles, and offer advice on self-care or other complementary therapies, such as Chinese herbs. The patient will be asked to lie down on their back, front, or one side, depending on where the needles are to be inserted. The acupuncturist should use single-use, disposable, sterile needles. As each needle is inserted, the patient might experience a very brief stinging or tingling sensation. After the needle is inserted, there is occasionally a dull pain at the base of the needle that then subsides. Acupuncture is typically fairly painless.
In some cases the needles are heated or stimulated with electricity after insertion. The needles will remain in place for between 5 and 30 minutes. The amount of treatments required depend on the patient. An individual with a chronic condition might need one to two treatments a week over several months. An acute problem usually improves after 8 to 12 sessions.