It seems counterintuitive. Your body is already in distress, yet you are told to lie still while sharp needles are intermittently inserted into your skin. Shouldn’t this enhance your discomfort rather than relieve the pain you are already experiencing? This is one of the most common misconceptions about acupuncture, a practice that originated in ancient China approximately 3,000 years ago. It entails pricking the skin with needles to help alleviate pain and assist in treating an array of physical, mental, and emotional conditions.
“The big thing that I always hear is that acupuncture is really painful,” says Angela Noelle Martin, a licensed acupuncturist and the owner of the Acupuncture of Boston Clinic. “This is an understandable misconception because acupuncture uses small needles. The truth is that most people find little to no discomfort, and any discomfort is easy to overlook because the results are worth it. Most patients also find the treatment very relaxing and often fall asleep.”
So how is it exactly that the procedure works to heal? According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, “Acupuncture is a technique in which practitioners stimulate specific points on the body — most often by inserting thin needles through the skin.”
The method enhances the body’s natural functions and encourages the self-healing process by stimulating specific sites known as acupuncture points. While the most common way of stimulating the “acupoints” is by inserting sterile needles into the skin, pressure, heat, and electrical stimulation are also sometimes used to increase the results. Other techniques that are utilized occasionally are heat therapy, cupping, applying topical medicines, and manual massage.
“Acupuncture helps treat pain by helping move blood to areas where blood may be stagnant, causing pain,” Martin says. “It also helps decrease the inflammatory response and reduces the brain’s perception of pain.”
Each year, as many as three million Americans, many of whom live with chronic pain, turn to acupuncture for a solution to their ailments. Claire Kelly, a 42-year-old glass artist, has been treated with acupuncture for the last three years to treat pain in her jaw.
“I developed a jaw joint malady called TMJ, which made my jaw lock up,” she says. “It was scary and was brought on by an unpleasant dental procedure. I used acupuncture as a relaxation and destressing tool to augment the western medicine I received from my primary-care physician.”
After frequently walking by a community acupuncture clinic close to her work, and having had minimal success with other treatments, Kelly decided to give it a try.
“I enjoyed the atmosphere of gentle healing without drugs,” she says. “What I needed most was to give my jaw joint rest, and acupuncture was a readily available means to do that along with rest and meditation for the rest of me.”
Added benefit: relaxation
Many people are drawn to the practice by the relaxation that accompanies acupuncture sessions. The practice relies on the body’s energy system to promote healing without the added trauma of surgery or the side effects of medications.
“When I was going frequently — three or more times a week — I would get into the chair and just immediately relax,” says Kelly. “It was almost like they didn’t even need to put the needles in. It was a really nice mental space that I went to when I was there.”
Deborah Neely, a 67-year-old retired teacher, has been using acupuncture to treat chronic pain for more than 25 years.
“I have always been open to alternative medicine, having benefited from chiropractic care since my 20s,” she says. “I took courses in yoga and acupressure points 40 years ago and noticed that both helped with pain, discomfort, and anxiety.”
Dr. Ying Yang, an acupuncturist from China, recommended the practice for Neely’s chronic lower back pain, and the doctor’s many stories of acupuncture successes further convinced her. She has seen many surgeries performed with only acupuncture as an anesthetic, and when her appendix was removed, acupuncture was the anesthetic. In fact, in China, acupuncture anesthesia is common in surgical procedures.
“It’s a complete misconception that we need drugs and surgery to heal,” Neely says. “I think it is a matter of opening our minds to a healing method far older than the allopathic model we use here in our western culture. The fact that I grew up in Africa opened me to ways to approaching things that were not standard.”
After experiencing ongoing benefits from her visits, Neely continued to utilize acupuncture treatments to assist with other maladies. She found that even for varied health issues, she consistently saw positive effects from her acupuncture appointments.
“I pursued acupuncture for various ailments: digestive disorder, menopausal symptoms, and high blood pressure,” she says.
While patients such as Kelly and Neely swear by the positive results they have had, what does medical science say about how effective acupuncture is? It largely backs up their experiences.
A rigorous analysis of data on nearly 18,000 patients published in 2012 in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that acupuncture eased the pain of osteoarthritis, migraines, and chronic back, neck, and shoulder pain. The lead author, Andrew J. Vickers, PhD, of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, says the results showed acupuncture provides real relief, not just a psychological effect.
In a review of clinical trials of acupuncture, yoga, and other complementary therapies published in 2016, researchers at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health found that acupuncture may help people with back pain and osteoarthritis of the knee.
Yin and yang
Traditional Chinese medicine is founded on an ancient belief that refers to the body and the universe as two opposite forces known as yin and yang. According to the theory, the human body is healthy when the forces are in balance. They’re kept in balance by a constant flow of energy called “qi” that runs along specific pathways, called meridians, in the body. When the flow becomes blocked, the disturbance can cause pain, illness, and other ailments.
Acupuncture is believed to release the blocked qi and promote the body’s natural healing response. Modern examinations of the practice have shown the effect of acupuncture on the nervous system, cardiovascular system, immune system, and digestive system. “By stimulating the body’s various systems, acupuncture can help to resolve pain and improve sleep, digestive function, and sense of well-being,” according to research from the University of California-San Diego Center for Integrative Medicine.
Every practitioner has his or her own approach to acupuncture, often utilizing both eastern and western techniques. To better understand what approach will benefit the patient most, the acupuncturist will often begin with a series of questions regarding the patient’s medical history, symptoms, and lifestyle. Before beginning any type of treatment, he or she will often closely examine:
• the areas of the patient’s body that are painful,
• the shape, coating, and color of the patient’s tongue,
• the color of the patient’s face, and
• the strength, rhythm, and condition of the patient’s pulse.
The typical treatment plan for most conditions requires one to two sessions per week, but that number can go up or down depending on the severity of the issue being treated. Acupoints are located all over the body. The appropriate points to stimulate may not be located anywhere near the area that is in pain, a fact that often confuses first-time patients. A standard session will usually involve the following.
• Needle insertion. The needles used for acupuncture are extremely thin, and while the patient might feel a slight aching sensation when the needle reaches the appropriate depth, discomfort is typically minimal. For a typical treatment, approximately five to 20 needles are used.
• Needle manipulation. The practitioner may lightly shift, twirl, or apply heat or light electrical pulses to the needles after they have been placed.
• Needle removal. The needles typically stay in place for about 10 to 20 minutes depending on the session and cause little to no discomfort when they are removed.
In general, few complications are reported from using acupuncture. Of course, issues can arise if a practitioner is not using sterilized needles or is not qualified to correctly administer treatments. While few risks are associated with acupuncture, potential side effects include:
• soreness. After a session, the patient may experience soreness, bleeding, or bruising;
• organ injury. In extremely rare cases, a needle can puncture an internal organ if it is pressed in too deeply; and
• infections. It is mandatory for licensed acupuncturists to use sterile, disposable needles. Using an old needle can expose a patient to an array of diseases, including hepatitis.
It is important to note that not every person is a suitable candidate for acupuncture or for specific kinds of acupuncture. Conditions that can lead to complications include:
• bleeding disorders. If a patient has a bleeding disorder or is taking blood thinners, his or her chances of bleeding or bruising from the needles increases;
• having a pacemaker. Certain types of acupuncture involve applying electrical pulses to the needles, so patients who have a pacemaker can be at risk of having their device’s operation impeded; and
• being pregnant. Certain kinds of acupuncture may induce labor, which can result in a premature delivery.
Results for acupuncture treatment can be hard to gauge and may vary from patient to patient. But because the side effects are minimal, it is an extremely valuable resource for people experiencing chronic pain who want to try alternative healing methods.
Acupuncturist Noelle Martin has seen firsthand amazing results that can come from the ancient healing method, whether for infertility, mental health issues, or lifelong chronic pain. Her favorite story is of a patient who came to her clinic when it first opened.
“He had back surgery scheduled in the next couple of months, and he wanted to try acupuncture as a last resort,” she recalls. “After the first three treatments, he had very little results. Then, after treatment four, he was about 60–70% better, and continued to improve with each session. When he went back to his doctor to talk further about his surgery, his doctor told him that his problem was gone and he no longer needed surgery.”