A look behind acupuncture needles: How can acupuncture help me?
Can those tiny little acupuncture needles help me?
Alternative medicine has been around for a long time, but in recent years it has certainly exploded. As more people have started looking into more “natural” approaches to healing, these therapies have grown significantly. It is important to exercise caution though. Some of these are benign and certainly have merit, while others could actually be harmful and no have scientific backing up. One of these therapies shown to have benefits is the ancient Chinese practice of acupuncture.
In fact, acupuncture has shown so much promise and so many potential benefits for several health ailments, that many MD’s are receiving additional training on it. They are then incorporating it into their medical practices. So, with this in mind, I thought it would be a great topic to discuss and examine the data behind it.
I am actually a big fan of acupuncture. I have been seeing an amazing practitioner for the last 9 years. She has helped me with a wide gamut of symptoms. So, without further delay, let’s dive in to the world of acupuncture.
A little on history
As I mentioned, acupuncture has been a regular part of Chinese healing for at least 2,000 years. Some sources believe it may be as old as 4,000 years! It wasn’t until the 20th century that the western world started getting acquainted with it. Initially met with a lot of skepticism, but slowly, as the research accumulated acceptance grew.
The 1970’s showed great growth of acupuncture in the western hemisphere when the World Health Organization started to sponsor acupuncture training programs. Many physicians went to China and learned the techniques under these programs.
I would like to point out that most physicians who learn acupuncture get specific, limited training for treating the points that would be helpful to their specialty. However, licensed acupuncturists (L.Ac) receive 3 years of training exclusively on acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine after their undergraduate studies.
The idea of balance in our organism is key to Chinese medicine. As the symbol of Ying/Yang ☯ displays, opposites live in balance and in harmony. Light/dark, day/night, must be in harmony. When our systems are in harmony, our Qi (pronounced “chee”), that is our life energy or force, can flow appropriately.
This Qi flows through 14 main channels (called meridians) along our bodies. When this flow is unbalanced, or interrupted, disease manifests in our bodies. Then, the purpose of acupuncture is to place tiny, thin acupuncture needles, along these meridians to re-balance the flow.
There are approximately 365 points along these meridians where they place acupuncture needles, depending on your condition. By performing a thorough history and examining the person, paying particular attention to the tongue and pulse points, the acupuncturist will decide on a treatment plan.
Acupuncture has been studied in many areas, but I will concentrate on two areas where we have the most research.
This is probably the most common treatment purpose that comes to mind when many people think about acupuncture in the United States, and with good reason. In the 1970’s, President Nixon opened relations with China. With this, a New York Times reporter by the name of James Reston was traveling through China. He unfortunately developed appendicitis amidst his travels and he had to undergo surgery. As part of his post-surgical treatment for pain, the Chinese hospital utilized acupuncture (so much nicer than getting slugged with a bunch of opioids!).
But what is the data on acupuncture and pain?
Well, there is plenty. It has been shown to help with everything from arthritis and muscular pain to cancer pain.
The oncologic population has been of particular interest and studies have shown that in patients with cancer acupuncture can decrease post-operative nausea, vomiting and pain, opioid induced constipation and itching, among other things.
Studies in non-cancer patients also show that acupuncture can improve post-operative pain the first day after surgery and reduce opioid use. This is particularly exciting because opioids have many side effects, including the risk of addiction. As you may have heard, we have a huge opioid crisis in the United States which is wreaking havoc and destroying families. BTW, if you would like to know more about the opiod epidemic and steps taken by physicians to try and manage this huge problem, check out this post by fellow physician Dr. Melissa Welby.
In addition, studies looking at migraine treatment and prevention demonstrate that acupuncture seems to be at least as effective as conventional drug preventative therapy for migraine. Also, it is safe, long lasting, and cost-effective.
As you can see, we have tons of data supporting the use of acupuncture for pain management.
This is another big area that scientists have studied.
When it comes to exploring outcomes of in-vitro fertilization (IVF), several studies suggest that acupuncture can improve high-quality embryo rate, increase endometrial receptivity (so higher chance of implantation) and improve overall IVF outcome. 👶🏻
It also seems to help with menstrual pain and although we don’t have huge studies and there is much variability in technique used, there are many reports stating that acupuncture can help regulate menstrual irregularities 🙋🏻 and improve overall menstrual health.
Other studies indicate that acupuncture needles help relieve anxiety and cause higher relief of depression when combined with anti-depressives versus anti-depressive medication alone.
From a scientific standpoint, the acupuncture needles are thought to help by increasing blood flow to the area with the needle, trigger different parts of the nervous system and modulate neurotransmitter release (we talked about neurotransmitters previously in this post).
For example, when patients suffering from insomnia received acupuncture, they noticed that those neurotransmitters that bring about relaxation were increased and those that excite us were decreased as compared to pre-acupuncture levels.
Overall, the side effect profile of acupuncture is very benign. The only caution would be for people on blood thinners or with bleeding disorders. Any needle could pose a bleeding risk for these patients.
As often happens with many alternative treatment modalities, not many studies qualify for consideration when evaluating the data. This is due to the rigorous scientific evaluation process medical studies undergo. However, there are significant numbers of smaller studies that support its benefits as well as hundreds of anecdotal reports. Hopefully we will continue to see larger and more rigorous studies.
So, should you try it?
I say yes, based on the safety profile and all the potential benefits, you should certainly give it a try. If you are afraid of acupuncture needles, I can tell you these guys are TINY. When performed by a good practitioner, you barely feel it. If it was painful, I wouldn’t be back for more treatments.
Next week, I will be chatting with a phenomenal and super reputable acupuncturist (and book author I may add!) here in NYC, so make sure you don’t miss it. Better yet, subscribe below to make sure you receive it in your inbox. We will be getting the low down on acupuncture straight from the source. So, make sure you contact me or comment below if you have any specific questions you would like to see answered!
In the meantime, go get your relaxation mode on, find your friendly neighborhood acupuncturist and give it a try! Let me know what you think.
Have a good week! 🌼💫