Acupuncture and Your Health
When people think of acupuncture, they focus on the placement of needles in the skin, and the effect that this placement has on their health. In reality, acupuncture treatment is more like the story of the rocket engineer who was summoned to the launch pad by NASA when the space launch engines failed to ignite, scrubbing the mission. The engineer circled the launch vehicle several times, then took out a hammer and tapped it hard one time. The NASA people looked at him incredulously, but he promised that the rocket would fly. A few hours later, it did. The next week, he sent NASA a hefty bill for his work. NASA’s administrator called him.
“This bill is enormous. You only tapped one time!”
The engineer agreed. “Tell you what, I’ll send you a new bill.”
A few days later, a new bill arrived at Cape Canaveral. It was for the same amount, but with two subtotals. The price was $1.00 for tapping on the spacecraft, and the old balance less one dollar “for knowing where to tap.”
Acupuncture is part of a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner’s approach to health which involves knowing where to tap. It helps people get well and stay well. Let’s learn more about it.
What Is Acupuncture and Why does it Work?
Acupuncture has a history going back many millennia, with its origins in ancient Chinese. Early Chinese physicians came to understand that just as energy channels from the sun to the earth, and from water and food to humans, that same energy – called Qi and pronounced “chi” in Mandarin – courses through the human body at all times. It is as essential to good health as the blood that circulates in arteries and veins. TCM doctors long ago identified the energy meridians in the body through which qi pulses; just as arteries and veins can develop blockages, so can qi. Acupuncturists insert thin-as-a hair, completely sterile needles into the skin along identified qi meridians in order to help balance the flow of energy in those meridians. When qi flows well, people feel great. When it flows poorly, people feel poorly – both chronic and acute disease and pain will be the result. The insertion of the needles will also stimulate the flow of oxygen and flood in the body, plus influence your body to manufacture and send into your bloodstream corticosteroids that help to reduce inflammation. With qi unblocked, blood flowing, oxygen at 100%, and the body’s own anti-inflammatory working together, healing comes quickly. It lasts, too.
Why Acupuncture Focuses on Qi
Acupuncture focuses on qi energy because it is axiomatic that without energy, anything alive will perish. Western medicine doesn’t think much about energy, but TCM centers it, identifying with precision the meridians (also called channels) though which energy moves in the body. These meridians are as complex as the veining on the leaf of a tree, and just as important. When they come close to the surface of the skin, they are liable to the influence of acupuncture needles – there are hundreds of acupuncture placement points on the skin where this influence can be done. (There are also great expanses of skin where insertion of a needle or needles is an exercise in sham medicine, because there are not meridians near the surface to affect.) Proper choosing of the insertion points – knowing where to tap! – plus knowledgeable and light-handed manipulation of certain needles promotes healing and the proper distribution of Qi.
More on the Meridians
TCM doctors know the fourteen possible meridians through which qi moves, and the relationship of each meridian and its branches to internal organs, glands, and areas of the body. This understanding – again, knowing where to tap! – is crucial to healing. Insertion of acupuncture needles on the wrong meridians will not be painful, and there may be some mild placebo effect, but it certainly will not have the positive effect on health that proper placement will achieve.
The Key “Qi” Problems
There are two types of qi problems in the body; thinking of qi like the flow of water is a good way to conceive of these issues. The most common problem is that qi gets blocked so it cannot flow smoothly. The buildup of cholesterol in the bloodstream can impede the flow of blood and cause serious problems in the heart. Similarly, a small stream obstructed by debris can flood the surrounding area almost impossibly fast. Qi can be blocked in the body by any number of intervening forces. Life stress is one. Emotional or physical trauma is another. Too little exercise and too much exercise can both disrupt qi. So can a bad diet, a change in season, a physical move, lack of sleep, or a physical infection of some kind. Depression and qi are locked in an unholy embrace, too. When qi is blocked, different parts of the body suffer, depending on which meridian has interference. Most of the time, the body knows how to heal itself, and qi restores just fine from a temporary blockage. Unfortunately, there are times when blockages persist. That’s when acupuncture can be highly effective. The second kind of problem is when there is too much qi in one meridian, and qi needs to be rebalanced. A TCM doctor can diagnose this issue and resolve it.
How Can Needles be Painless?
Acupuncture needles are painless. They are very fine, often as fine as a hair, less than a tenth of the diameter of the typical hypodermic that is used to administer an injection. They are also inserted far more shallowly into the skin than a hypodermic that must deliver some kind of fluid into your system. Hypodermics hurt as they penetrate, and they hurt as they go deeper. Acupuncture needles are painless. Often, the patient feels nothing at all when they are inserted. Some say it feels like the touch of a pin to the skin without the skin breaking. Once the needle is in, it will remain on the meridian for between a quarter hour and an hour, as the TCM doctor determines. Most people love the experience.
Acupuncture and Medical Research
Western medical schools and institutions have been slow to implement research protocols that examine the efficacy of acupuncture by western standards. Those efforts that have been undertaken have been hampered by incomplete experimental designs and poor training for the experimenters. That said, there is a growing body of research that supports the efficacy of acupuncture when it is administered by trained TCM doctors. The most impressive study was reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine about a decade ago, with the investigators seeking to understand the efficacy of acupuncture as a treatment for lower back pain. As most everyone knows, lower back pain is among the most common debilitating conditions in western culture. At some point in their adult life, just about everyone has an episode or episodes.
The lower back pain study was done in Germany. More than 1,800 subjects received almost 13,500 treatments, with the researchers writing of how acupuncture was a “promising and effective treatment option” for lower back pain, and a reasonable possibility for the patient to use compared to western medicine. Since most lower back treatment involves multiple visits to a chiropractor, the injection of steroids, or prescription painkillers, TCM and acupuncture represent a noninvasive, safe way for patients to get back quickly to their regular routines. In a completely different area of medicine, a British study from 2008 looked at the effect that acupuncture might have on women who had sought in-vitro fertilization, a procedure for which success rates are frustratingly erratic. The British Medical Journal reported on a study whose results were a better rate of success for this type of fertilization and gestation, less nausea, and lowered rates of pregnancy discomfort. There was no effect on the fetus in the uterus.
In addition to these areas, papers have appeared that endorse the use of acupuncture for a wide range of physical issues, including conditions and diseases of the cardiovascular and endocrine systems. For example…
Other Conditions Treatable by Acupuncture: The Evidence.
For insomnia, a 2003 study pointed out that acupuncture has effectiveness rates about 90%, helps people sleep more deeply, and cuts down or eliminates the need for prescription sleep aids. (Sok,SR, et al., The effects of acupuncture therapy on insomnia. J. Adv Nurs., 2003 Nov; 44 (4): 375-384. J. Traditional Chinese Medicine, 2002 Dec.; 22 (4): 276-277).
For morning sickness, a 2008 study of women who were nauseous during pregnancy found that acupressure – a variation on acupuncture that uses pressure on meridians instead of needles – helped to alleviate vomiting and nausea in comparison to a control group who were administered a placebo, with far fewer side effects. (Comp. Therapy Clin. Practice, 2008 Feb; 14 (1): 46-52.)
For gastritis, which is an enflamed stomach lining, a 2003 Chinese study found acupuncture nearly 95% effective in treating people who had chronic gastritis (J.Traditional Chinese Medicine, 2003 Dec.: 23 (4): 278-279.)
For depression, a 2004 study showed that acupuncture could be used to treat major depressive illness even more effectively than well-established anti-depressive medications, with fewer side effects (J. Traditional Chinese Medicine, 2004 Sep.; 24 (3): 172-176).
For overall osteoarthritis, a 2004 study found acupuncture helped range of motion and relieved pain when done in combination with traditional therapies. The positive effect was not found for sham acupuncture where needles were placed in areas not indicated for treatment. (Berman, B.M., et al., Effectiveness of Acupuncture as Adjunctive Therapy in Osteoarthritis of the Knee: a randomized, controlled trial. Annals of Internal Medicine, Dec. 21, 2004; 141 (12) 901-910). For arthritis is the shoulder, a 2003 study with more than 200 subjects revealed that 75% experienced a cure, and another 20% showed improvement in their arthritis. Few had no positive effect. This acupuncture was enhanced by the electrical stimulation of the needles, which caused no pain to the patients ( J. Traditional Chinese Medicine, 2003 Sept.; 23 (3): 201-202.)
For hypertension (high blood pressure), a 2003 study done in Germany over six weeks indicated that acupuncture was effective for the lowering of both blood pressure numbers – systolic (the first number) and diastolic (the second). The investigators compared the results to patients who had received “sham” acupuncture, which is the insertion of needles in locations that are not energy meridians identified for the association with the circulatory system (J. Traditional Chinese Medicine, 2003 Mar.; 23(1): 49-50).
For migraine headaches, a 2008 study compared acupuncture treatment to a common prescription called Rizatriptan and determined that acupuncture could lower the pain and duration of migraines in combination with medication than did those who took medication on its own, or who received sham acupuncture in combination with their medication. ( J. Headache,2008 Mar.)
For fibromyalgia, a common autoimmune disorder that strikes women preponderantly, a 2008 study indicates that the addition of acupuncture to traditional treatment lessens the discomfort and improves life quality for as many as ninety days following the cessation of treatment. ( J. Rehab. Med., 2008 Jul.; 40(7): 582-588.)
Acupuncture and Other Ailments
The studies listed above just scratch the surface of the range of conditions for which acupuncture is an effective treatment. Other ailments which have been shown to be responsive to acupuncture administered by a TCM professional include:
- Psychological issues including anxiety, insomnia, depression, and “burn-out”
- Arthritis, both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis
- Asthma and other breathing difficulties including chronic sinusitis or seasonal allergic reactions
- Autoimmune disorders of all kinds
- Bell’s palsy
- Back pain, including lower back pain and sciatica
- Cancer and cancer treatment side effects
- Chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia
- Chronic gastritis, acid reflux, and other digestive issues
- Hormonal imbalances of all kinds
- Inner ear issues like dizziness or vertigo
- Menstrual difficulties of all kinds – PMS, cramping, irregular and painful periods
- Neck discomfort and pain
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome
- Pregnancy discomfort including morning sickness
- TMJ in the jaw
- Ulcers of the stomach, mouth, and ulcerative colitis
- Weight regulation – underweight, overweight, and obesity