Acupuncture is one of the oldest forms of energy healing that has been practiced for thousands of years. As a Doctor of Acupuncture who has been treating patients for over 20 years, I’ve witnessed the amazing healing and balancing benefits of acupuncture. From helping with chronic pain to improving fertility, acupuncture has stood the test of time and grown and developed as a healing modality. The reason is simple – It works. In this article, I’ll explain how acupuncture works, how it can benefit you, as well as what to expect when you get acupuncture.
What is Acupuncture and How Does Acupuncture Work?
Acupuncture originated in China thousands of years ago, where it is believed that sharpened stones were used to deliver treatment as early as 6000 BCE. There’s some speculation that a similar practice was developing in other parts of the world too. Interestingly, researchers found that the mummified remains of an “Ice Man” who lived in the European Alps in 3300 BCE, showed tattoos suggesting he received a form of acupuncture that presumably developed independently of East Asia’s tradition.
Acupuncture is based on the idea that human beings have qi (pronounced chee). Qi is often described as energy, but in reality, qi describes the way the body is intelligent, meaning all the ways our bodies are aware and can act to restore balance and health. For example, every cell in your body is aware of its neighbors and can act when given a prompt. That awareness and consciousness is what we call qi. How acupuncture works is by prompting this qi and help our body’s innate self-healing abilities. (Other healing prompts used in East Asian Medicine include herbal medicine, therapeutic exercise, nutritional therapy, moxa (short for moxibustion), cupping, massage, and Gua Sha.)
Today, acupuncture is practiced all over the world. The practice of acupuncture in a modern clinic involves placing sterile, single-use needles at specific acupuncture points on the body. The needles are so thin that you could tie them in a knot. That means they’re painless though they can elicit a dull achy sensation at the needling site, known as an acupoint.
Acupuncture points are interesting because they appear to be specialized tissue, and until recently, no one knew why. Helene M. Langevin, a clinical endocrinologist at the neurology department at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, led an interesting study on acupuncture. It found a measurable “pull out force” as the body “grabbed’ an acupuncture needle. The strength of this grab was 18% higher when measured at acupuncture points as opposed to non-acupuncture points. The needle grab is more vigorous at these points because they are more conductive of electrical energy.
Perhaps more crucially, however, in experimenting on a piece of rat abdominal wall, Langevin and her colleagues found that when they rotated the needles— putting some qi on it as we acupuncturists say —the connective tissue underneath the skin became “mechanically attached.” Langevin noted that “even a small amount of rotation caused the connective tissue to wrap around the needle, like spaghetti winding around a fork.” Langevin also found that the tissue remains stretched in this way for the duration of the acupuncture treatment, causing chemical changes at a cellular level that increase electrical conductivity.
Dr. Langevin believes that connective tissue holds the key to acupuncture’s effectiveness. Connective tissue is everywhere inside of us— “one could draw a line between any two points of the body via a path of connective tissue,” Langevin writes. Connective tissue has many functions: it holds organs in place, offers a path for nerves and blood vessels, stores energy and attaches muscle to bone, and, yes, even conducts electricity. This ability to conduct electricity is thanks to a critical component of connective tissue: collagen. There are layers of water bound to collagen fibers that form a uniquely conductive pathway, allowing an electrical charge to travel rapidly throughout the body.
Connective tissue, long underplayed by western medicine and science, has recently become of interest, particularly among molecular and physiological researchers, as new evidence has demonstrated that stimulation to the connective tissue, such as through acupuncture, can be sensed at a cellular level, decreasing chronic inflammation, reducing pain and even potentially inhibiting the growth of cancer cells or fibrotic tissue.
What is Acupuncture Good For?
Acupuncture has so many benefits, everything from improving sleep to increasing blood flow in the umbilical cord of pregnant women to helping ease mental health issues. Acupuncturists know how acupuncture works and they choose the correct combination of acupoints to stimulate the connective tissue and prompt a change in the body. Then, they decide where to place the needles based on a Chinese medicine diagnosis. This is a method of diagnosis that identifies patterns and relationships in the body. It expresses the complexity of our wholeness and the relationship between organ systems that being healthy involves.
Many of acupunture’s benefits and what acupuncture is good for has been researched and documented. Indeed, Doppler ultrasound has been used to show that acupuncture increases blood flow and circulation. Additionally, MRI readings have shown that acupuncture can prompt observable changes in the brain. In fact, one 2013 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that electroacupuncture— a form of acupuncture in which a mild electric current is transmitted through the needles— was as effective as Prozac in reducing symptoms of depression!
Another thing that acupuncture is good for is pain relief, either by helping to release a spasmed muscle or through interrupting the signal of pain. Acupuncture can also prompt a cascade of chemicals that allow the body’s immune system to modulate or promote hormone balance.
You may be thinking, how could one simple, painless intervention achieve so many different things? The answer is that acupuncture isn’t magical, it’s a way of communicating with your body, and helping your body heal itself, something it does every day as it restores order and balance. Acupuncture is merely a very efficient prompt to guide that process —one that has been used for thousands of years in increasingly sophisticated ways.
What To Expect At Your Acupuncture Appointment
At your initial appointment, your practitioner will usually ask about your medical history and your primary reason for treatment. At my clinic, regardless of whether you are coming for fertility support, anxiety, or any other, we ask about your sleep, your digestion, and your health history, among other things. All of this information helps us come to a systemic whole-body diagnosis so we can select the best acupuncture points to support recalibrating your physiological systems to optimal health. Your practitioner may also explain how acupuncture works and what to expect during your appointment so you can relax as much as possible during the treatment.
Before treatment, it is good to eat at least a small snack 1-2 hours and be hydrated. It is also good to empty your bladder before you lay down for treatment. Additionally, you should wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothes, so that your shins, forearms, and abdomen are easily accessible. You might feel a small pitch or nothing at all at insertion, and afterward, you might feel a slight movement or burst of energy at the focal point or in other areas of your body.
Each treatment takes somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes, and this varies depending on your unique case, symptoms, and goals.
After the treatment, don’t plan for anything super stressful. In fact, I recommend that you take it easy and rest so that the effects of treatment can integrate throughout your body. You also want to be sure to drink lots of water after each treatment.
Are There Any Negative Side Effects?
This tiny, superficial intervention has a very low incidence of side effects because it is so gentle. That’s because your body is doing most of the work. When the acupuncturist delivers the correct prompt, your body responds by initiating its own healing mechanisms, what we would call qi. Another common question we get is “will I become addicted?” and the answer to that is no! There are no addictive qualities to acupuncture, except for that blissful feeling, of course.
Now that you know all about how acupuncture works and what acupuncture is good for, I hope you’ll give it a try, whether it’s for a specific ailment or to simply feel more energized. If you live in the New York city area, you can reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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