Acupuncture is the name given to a type of medical treatment that utilizes thin needles to promote healing and optimal physiological functioning. Acupuncture was brought over from East Asia where it has been a primary form of medicine for millennia. Its use and popularity have been rapidly growing in the United States since the 1970’s, and have been increasingly integrated into Western medicine. The effect of acupuncture is achieved by inserting needles, and at times applying heat or electrical stimulation, to very specific points on the body. Depending on the condition(s) being treated these points may be located on any aspect of the surface of the body, but points are selected for particular effect. The needle is used to access a variety of tissues in the body such as nerves, blood vessels, lymphatic vessels, and muscle or connective tissue. The value of stimulating different tissues is in allowing the body to initiate its own healing response: increase blood flow, reduce inflammation, release hormones that reduce pain and stress, improve muscle tonicity and function, amongst others.
There is a vast array of conditions that acupuncture may treat, including but not limited to:
- Common cold
- Abdominal pain
- Menopausal symptoms
- Premenstrual syndrome
- Back pain
- Muscle cramping
- Neck pain
- Parkinson’s disease
- Postoperative pain
- Post-Stroke Sequelae
- Athletic performance
- Blood pressure regulation
- Chronic fatigue
- Immune modulation
- Stress reduction
The needles are solid but flexible, and hair-thin. They more resemble pins than hollow hypodermic needles that you would get a flu shot with. To learn more about the differences between acupuncture and hypodermic needles check out our blog post Taking the Point Out of the Needle. Being that the needles are so fine, there is little discomfort and the procedure is minimally invasive. While pain is not common, there are a number of expected responses such as heaviness, tingling, warming, and traveling. It is important for both the clinician and the patient to learn to differentiate these sensations.
In addition to needling, acupuncture can be accompanied by heat therapy known as moxibustion. Moxibustion is the burning of mugwort (Artemisia Vulgaris) over acupuncture points or broad areas of the body. The smoldering of the herb promotes local physiological responses on top of the needling mechanisms. Actually, in China acupuncture is known as ‘acupuncture and moxibustion’ in unison. Also, electronic stimulation (E-Stim) may be clipped to the needles giving an electric pulse, enhancing the effect of the treatment. A benefit of e-stim is the continuous stimulation of the needled points, which may not be possible in an otherwise busy acupuncture practice. These adjunct modalities may be included in a treatment when appropriate to the patient presentation.
Just as there are different specialties in Western Medicine, acupuncture is one branch of medical intervention in the East Asian Medical model. To act on a biochemical level, the practitioner may prescribe herbal formulas, which are equivalent to internal medicine in the West. For instance, in cases of Irritable Bowel Syndrome a gastroenterologist may prescribe antidiarrheal medications to ease one discomfort but miss others. As an alternative the herbalist can offer a formula that best suits the patient as a whole, not just addressing the single symptom. There are some stark differences between pharmaceuticals, supplements and herbal formulas, which will be discussed in a future post. The use of personalized herbal prescriptions can address deep pathologies and give continual stimulation in between acupuncture visits. Along these lines dietary therapy is the first line of health in East Asian Medicine and is guided by the same principles as herbal prescriptions, but on a more general, less individualized level.
Another way in which Eastern medicine addresses disease in the body is through manual therapy or bodywork. Manual therapy may be applied to soft tissue, visceral manipulation, and traditionally for bone setting. There are different methods of manual therapy in East Asia but the most commonly utilized in the western clinical setting is known as Tuina. Tuina is often employed as an adjunct to acupuncture, or on it’s own as a general treatment modality. Tuina and other forms of Asian bodywork are not used for relaxation purposes, but for clinical results, and are more akin to Physical Therapy than a spa session.
Meditation and movement practices such as Tai Chi and Qigong are used to reduce stress, improve focus, hone coordination, and optimize physiology. There is a wave of current research that shows combining mental focus, breath work, and physical movement positively affects health on many levels. In proper context, these practices may be added to a treatment plan to increase a patient’s recovery from illness and improve their quality of life.
In short, acupuncture is a form of medical intervention derived from the East and being embraced in the West. It is a simple, minimally invasive procedure that has proven beneficial for a host of conditions from pain management to internal diseases, even the common cold. Acupuncture and the other methods of East Asian medicine can be a major factor in enhancing one’s ability to recover from disease, or simply be part of a solid health regimen.
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