Acupuncture is a form of therapeutic modalities in Traditional Chinese Medicine – also simply referred to as TCM – that is used to treat pain and dysfunction.
The TCM’s philosophy is based on the relationship between a person’s emotions and physical being with nature and having an integrative relationship between them as a whole.
What is acupuncture and how does it work?
The practice of acupuncture involves insertion of thin needles through the skin and into the body. In TCM, acupuncture is used to stimulate specific points that are located on various pathways that are known as Meridians. Qi (pronounced Ch’i) is translated as “vital air” that flows in meridians, much like the oxygen that flows in blood vessels and supply the vital functions of the organs, bones, muscles, and nerves. In TCM, pain and dysfunctions arise from the blockages of Qi along the meridians. Acupuncture aims to restore the flow of Qi in order to reach physiological equilibrium, hence reducing pain and dysfunction.
In western medicine the effect of acupuncture needles is explained as a technique to locally stimulate muscles, nerves and connective tissues below the dermis – the deepest layer of skin. In other words acupuncture stimulates the body’s natural healing response to relieve pain and restores the function of the affected region.
Does acupuncture work?
Acupuncture is most commonly used to treat local and systemic pain. Research suggests that the use of acupuncture can be beneficial for numerous conditions such as chronic low back pain, chronic neck pain, tension type headaches, chronic hip and knee osteoarthritis, shin splints, and chronic lateral elbow pain.
In western medicine the effect of acupuncture is often understood through the gate control theory. This theory indicates that an external stimulant – in this case acupuncture needles – can lead to an increased activation of neurotransmitters, which interfere with stress signals that are send to the brain. This closes the “gate” and the signal does not get through which alleviates the pain.
Acupuncture can target specific muscle pain, tightness, inflammation, and swelling via local needling traditionally but also through dry needling. Acupuncture also has global beneficial effects throughout the body. For example, points that can treat muscle soreness can also treat headache.
Acupuncture promotes circulation throughout the body (i.e. globally) which is beneficial for accelerating healing process and reducing pain. For example, patients with diabetes experience a slower rate of healing due to reduced circulation and its effects on the healing process. Hence the use of acupuncture can help facilitate this recovery process by promoting blood circulation. Increasing the circulation throughout the body can affect a person in ways other than physical well-being such as endorsing mental and emotional well-being.
Is Acupuncture painful?
In TCM, De Qi is the sensation experienced by the patient or the practitioner while administrating acupuncture. This sensation usually differs from the pain of insertion itself and is often described as distension, numbness, soreness or heaviness at the site of insertion or along meridians. The thin acupuncture needles are designed to minimize the discomfort from the insertion of the needle. However, based on the location that these needles are applied, some tenderness may be experienced, which commonly dissipates within few seconds. Some patients may find Dry Needling technique more uncomfortable as the needle directly targets tender spots.
Is acupuncture safe?
There are a number of potential risks associated with the use of acupuncture needles, such as infection, bent or broken needles and organs puncture however these side effects are managed through proper technique and equipment. Acupuncture needles are typically made of sterilized disposable stainless steel wire to limit infection. Your healthcare provider uses their sound anatomy knowledge to minimize the risk of serious injuries to the organs, blood vessels and nerves.
As a therapist, I often choose the application of acupuncture in conjunction with other treatment methods, such as manual therapy and exercise prescription. After a thorough assessment, and based on the specific condition that is being treated – i.e. pain, swelling, muscle tension –and the individual needs of the patient, acupuncture or dry needling techniques can improve the treatment effect. I tend to integrate both western and eastern point of view on healing and physical medicine to treat the body locally and as a whole in order to ensure a comprehensive treatment.
If you wish to consider acupuncture as part of your treatment plan, consult your healthcare provider (i.e. Physical Therapist, Chiropractor, TCM acupuncturist or massage therapist) to ensure safety and efficiency of this modality for you.