Q&A from the National Institutes of Health:
Acupuncture is a technique in which practitioners stimulate specific points on the body—most often by inserting thin needles through the skin. It is one of the practices used in Traditional Chinese medicine.
About Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
TCM encompasses many different practices, including acupuncture, moxibustion (burning an herb above the skin to apply heat to acupuncture points), Chinese herbal medicine, tui na (Chinese therapeutic massage), dietary therapy, and tai chi and qi gong (practices that combine specific movements or postures, coordinated breathing, and mental focus). TCM is rooted in the ancient philosophy of Taoism and dates back more than 2,500 years. Traditional systems of medicine also exist in other East and South Asian countries, including Japan (where the traditional herbal medicine is called Kampo) and Korea. Some of these systems have been influenced by TCM and are similar to it in some ways, but each has developed distinctive features of its own.
The ancient beliefs on which TCM is based include the following:
- The human body is a miniature version of the larger, surrounding universe.
- Harmony between two opposing yet complementary forces, called yin and yang, supports health, and disease results from an imbalance between these forces.
- Five elements—fire, earth, wood, metal, and water—symbolically represent all phenomena, including the stages of human life, and explain the functioning of the body and how it changes during disease.
- Qi, a vital energy that flows through the body, performs multiple functions in maintaining health.
The FDA regulates acupuncture needles as medical devices and requires that the needles be sterile, nontoxic, and labeled for single use by qualified practitioners only. Relatively few complications from the use of acupuncture have been reported. Some Chinese herbal products may be safe, but others may not be. There have been reports of products being contaminated with drugs, toxins, or heavy metals or not containing the listed ingredients. Some of the herbs used in Chinese medicine can interact with drugs, can have serious side effects, or may be unsafe for people with certain medical conditions. Reported complications of moxibustion include allergic reactions, burns, and infections, but how often these events occur is not known. Both moxibustion and cupping (applying a heated cup to the skin to create a slight suction) may mark the skin, usually temporarily. Tai chi and qi gong are considered to be generally safe practices.
Additional questions you might have:
Does it hurt?
Demetra is highly experienced in gentle needling techniques. Some acupuncture points will provide no sensation at all; other may feel heavy when needled, as if a stone is resting on the area, or have slight tingle. Points on the tips of the fingers, on the face, and in some other sensitive areas, may have a brief ‘zing’ when placed but shouldn’t register as painful by common standards. The act of needling itself results in the body’s natural release of endorphins, bringing about a feeling of calm and lightness.
And if you are afraid of needles, you are not alone! Many people have had negative experiences with needles, whether in a conventional medical office, while receiving acupuncture from a ‘heavy-handed’ acupuncture practitioner, or just being naturally needle-shy. You will be relieved to find that the needles we use at our clinic are about the size of long eyelashes and even thinner. They are more like hairs than needles, and an almost-universal experience for first-time clients being needled is to say, “Oh! That was nothing!”
What does acupuncture treat?
Because acupuncture treatments engage with the body’s fascial network and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of ‘fight-or-flight’, also known as ‘rest-and-repair’), acupuncture can help to varying degrees with a wide variety of health conditions. A partial list includes:
- Musculoskeletal: Neck pain, shoulder pain, tennis elbow, carpal tunnel, back pain, knee pain, sciatica, foot pain, sports injuries, post-surgical pain, overuse symdromes
- Neurological/Nervous System: headache, insomnia, stroke, stress disorders, Bell’s palsy, thyroid disorders, neuralgia, epilepsy
- Reproductive: infertility (male/female), menstrual pain, PMS, menopause, pregnancy, cysts, low libido
- Respiratory: asthma, cough, sore throat, common cold, hay fever, allergies
- Gastrointestinal: constipation, diarrhea, acid reflux, nausea, stomach pain, poor digestion, IBS, colitis
- Others: Heart disorders, high/low blood pressure, chronic fatigue, support during cancer treatment, prostate disorders, addiction and recovery, accident-related injuries, anxiety & depression, skin disorders.
What is cupping?
Cupping therapy uses suction to put negative pressure on connective tissue and muscles to increase circulation and relax stiff muscles. Traditional cups are glass while modern ones can be made of silicone or plastic. Your practitioner will apply coconut oil on your back, put the cups over the areas to be treated and then slide them around before leaving them to work their magic.
How many acupuncture treatments will I need?
Almost everybody who gets acupuncture will need a series of treatments to get good results. Most treatment plans begin with 6-8 weeks of regular treatments to get results and go on from there. These suggestions are based on our experience with treating different kinds of conditions. If you don’t come in often enough or long enough, acupuncture probably won’t work for you.
Acupuncture treatments can take time to work and to provide lasting results. While some patients will feel immediate relief or a measurable lessening of symptoms with each treatment, this does not mean your condition is gone for good. A good analogy is the use of antibiotics in western medicine. With antibiotics, you are not asked to take a pill once. Instead you are prescribed a course of treatment that can last for days or weeks. You might feel markedly better after a short time, but you still need to complete the course of treatment. Acupuncture is the same. We are slowly changing the way your body is balanced, and this is not something that typically happens in one treatment. Your body needs time to learn how to balance itself, so it won’t revert to its old ways.