Acupuncture Explained: Why This Ancient Practice Should Be A Part Of Your Holistic Health Routine

Inserting needles into your skin may seem strange, but science shows it can have real health benefits.

January 23, 2018

When you think of acupuncture, what comes to mind? If you’re like most Americans, the first word you think of after hearing acupuncture is needles. Many of us have seen acupuncture portrayed in movies or other media and have formed our own skeptical or fear-based ideas about the practice. After all, don’t those needles hurt? And isn’t acupuncture some kind of outdated treatment that should have been shuttered once modern medicine came around?

Although you’ve probably seen depictions of acupuncture, most people don’t understand the theory behind the practice, or the fact that acupuncture has proven health benefits (yes, even according to Western medicine). With more Americans looking into alternative wellness and putting a focus on preventative healthcare, now is a great time to learn about acupuncture and the positive effects it can have on your life.

So, keep an open mind and read on. We promise that this treatment is about so much more than being stuck with needles! If you give it a chance, acupuncture might just become one of your favorite parts of your holistic health routine.

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is an approach that is part of traditional Chinese medicine. The process itself involves very intentionally stimulating certain parts of the body. Most often this is done using thin metal needles that are inserted into the skin, but there are other approaches that don’t involve needles at all (so if fear of needles is holding you back, it’s time to reconsider acupuncture).

“Acupuncture originated in China thousands of years ago as part of the region’s healthcare traditions,” says Yunuen “June” Beristain, a licensed acupuncturist and founder of Amplify Acupuncture in Los Angeles. “For thousands of years, it has remained as one of the region’s widely used therapeutic methods due to its efficacy.”

Traditional Chinese medicine is grounded in the idea that everything in nature is powered by qi, or energy, Beristain explains. This includes our bodies, which should function as a perfectly balanced system. When that system becomes disrupted or unbalanced, health ailments can emerge. Acupuncture aims to realign the system, allowing qi to flow as it should.

“For thousands of years, it has remained as one of the region’s widely used therapeutic methods due to its efficacy.”

—Yunuen “June” Beristain, Amplify Acupuncture

“By understanding this energy along with its functions, mechanisms, and pathways in the body, acupuncture is able to stimulate it. In doing so, it effectively stimulates the body’s own healing mechanisms,” Beristain says.

Rather than healing ailments, practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine believe acupuncture allows the body to access its own healing powers and rebalance its systems.

“Our bodies know how to heal. They are constantly healing themselves. Acupuncture uses our own body’s wisdom and healing mechanisms to improve health,” Beristain says. “It works with the body, not against it. This makes acupuncture an excellent choice for natural medicine, with little to no side effects but with excellent results.”

What does Western medicine have to say?

All that talk about energy flow and natural healing sounds wonderful, but if you’re like many savvy health consumers, you probably want to know what Western medical research says about acupuncture, like how it functions and whether it works.

The short answer? It sure does.

According to research reviewed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), acupuncture is an effective treatment for many ailments, particularly chronic pain and menopause-related symptoms including hot flashes, sleep interruptions, and anxiety. In fact, one study found that acupuncture reduced menopause symptoms by nearly 37 percent. Women who received acupuncture during the study also reported improved quality of life.  

When it comes to certain chronic conditions including chronic pain, one review of studies involving nearly 18,000 individuals being treated for chronic pain found that those who had acupuncture experienced less pain than people who received simulated acupuncture—a placebo situation designed to make them believe they were getting acupuncture when they weren’t.

According to research reviewed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), acupuncture is an effective treatment for many ailments, particularly chronic pain and menopause-related symptoms.

An in-depth NIH resource on acupuncture reports that “results from a number of studies suggest that acupuncture may help ease types of pain that are often chronic such as low-back pain, neck pain, and osteoarthritis/knee pain. It also may help reduce the frequency of tension headaches and prevent migraine headaches. Therefore, acupuncture appears to be a reasonable option for people with chronic pain to consider.”

The resource goes on to say, “The effects of acupuncture on the brain and body and how best to measure them are only beginning to be understood.”

While studies have shown that acupuncture can be effective for pain relief, Western doctors don’t entirely understand why it works so well. It is believed that acupuncture affects the electronic transmissions that take place in all areas of our bodies, explains Joseph Feuerstein, MD, director of integrative medicine at Stamford Hospital in Stamford, Connecticut, and assistant professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University in New York City.

“Research suggests that acupuncture is working on multiple different parts of the central nervous simultaneously, including releasing pain-modulating substances in the local area and also work[ing] at the level of the spinal cord and higher areas of the brain,” Feuerstein says.

Beristain agrees with this characterization.

“Acupuncture is working on multiple different parts of the central nervous simultaneously, including releasing pain-modulating substances.”

—Joseph Feuerstein, MD

“Acupuncture stimulates the minuscule electrical impulses that energize every cell, every tissue, and every function in our bodies,” she says. “For example, connectivity tissue, which is prevalent throughout the entire body, has high electric activity. By the strategic insertion and manipulation of tiny needles, acupuncture stimulates the electric activity in the body that stimulates healing.”

Who should try acupuncture?

Given your new understanding of both the Western and traditional Chinese explanations of how acupuncture operates, you might be wondering if you should give it a try. Most Americans who try acupuncture come to it when other medical options have failed to give them relief or help them heal. However, Beristain points out that in traditional Chinese medicine acupuncture is an important preventative health measure.

“You don’t have to experience any health challenges to benefit from acupuncture,” she says. “Just like a healthy diet, exercise, and mindfulness, acupuncture is a great practice to maintain your health.”

That said, since acupuncture has been shown to relieve chronic pain and alleviate symptoms of menopause, people with those conditions could benefit from therapeutic acupuncture.

Many people turn to acupuncture for help with fertility issues, too, and all the experts who spoke with HealthyWay for this piece say that acupuncture can help with fertility. However, the research is not clear-cut around this issue. One study found that acupuncture can improve coping for women who are having difficulty getting pregnant and that it may positively influence female reproductive health. Another study found that acupuncture did not increase pregnancy rates for women undergoing in vitro fertilization overall, although it did result in some improved pregnancy rates at IVF clinics with lower success rates.

What to Look for in an Acupuncture Provider

Opting for acupuncture can be scary, especially since Western medicine can’t fully account for how it works. Mysteries aside, it’s also not easy to find a person who you can trust to poke and prod you with a bunch of needles!

That’s why it’s important to find a qualified acupuncturist who can help set your mind at ease. Ralph Esposito, a naturopathic physician, licensed acupuncturist, and functional medicine doctor with offices in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and New York City, says it’s important to go with someone who is a licensed acupuncturist or LAc. Other doctors can be trained in acupuncture without understanding the basics of traditional Chinese medicine, which are essential for making acupuncture work, he says. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine can help you find a licensed acupuncturist in your area.

“Just like a healthy diet, exercise, and mindfulness, acupuncture is a great practice to maintain your health.”

—Yunuen “June” Beristain, Amplify Acupuncture

Beristain points out that licensed acupuncturists have undergone years of training in order to provide you with top-notch care.

“The amount of training to become a licensed acupuncturist is vast and challenging,” she says. In California, where she practices, licensed acupuncturists have to complete a four-year program and go through a multi-level certification exam.

What to Expect

When you go for your an acupuncture appointment you can expect to spend about half an hour with your practitioner, although the first appointment will take longer as you talk about your health conditions and what brought you in.

Then, it’s time to get started. You’ll relax (usually lying down), while your acupuncturist inserts between five and 20 needles depending on the type and site of treatment. Those are left in for 10 to 20 minutes, during which time you can just sit back and relax. After that the needles are removed and you’re ready to be on your way.

One of the biggest misconceptions about acupuncture is that it hurts, Beristain says. Because acupuncture needles are very thin, they shouldn’t cause you pain when they are inserted.

“One might experience a needle that is uncomfortable, but most people are surprised at the fact that acupuncture can be virtually painless,” she says.

Esposito adds that many people believe the needles are targeting nerves, which is not the case.

“Yes, these needles are very close to specific nerves and they work on the autonomic nervous system but they don’t ‘hit’ nerves,” he explains. “That actually would be very painful.”

Instead, the needles calmly stimulate your body’s qi energy or electrical pulses, depending on whether you’re looking at it from the Eastern or Western viewpoint. Overall, the process is very gentle, so it may take a few sessions to begin experiencing relief.

“Acupuncture is gentle. It works with the body’s own wisdom to, in most cases, go to the root of the issue,” Beristain says. “Therefore, it is rarely used as a therapeutic method that one can do once and expect immediate results.”

Most people treating a specific condition will require two session a week for about six weeks. After that you’ll evaluate your needs with your practitioner and set up a maintenance plan.

It’s ok to go to your acupuncture appointment right after exercising, but it’s important to make sure you’ve eaten recently, Esposito says.

Acupuncture needles calmly stimulate your body’s qi energy or electrical pulses, depending on whether you’re looking at it from the Eastern or Western viewpoint.

“Acupuncture can be great to lower blood sugar and blood pressure, and doing it without any food can cause lightheadedness and low blood sugar,” he explains.

After your session light movement is suggested, but it’s best to hold off on heavier exercise for the rest of the day.

Acupuncture at Home (and on the Road)

To get the full benefits of acupuncture you have to visit a licensed practitioner who has spent years studying the complex theories behind the practice. However, there are some benefits of acupuncture that you can experience at home, no needles required.

For relief from headaches, Esposito recommends activating your large intestine point (LI4), which is located between your thumb and index finger.

“Straighten all your fingers to have them touch and there will be a bump between your thumb and index finger. This is LI4,” he says. “Press here for a few minutes for headache relief.”

Another popular acupuncture point is pericardium 6 (PC-6), also known as the Inner Pass. This is located about two inches up your forearm from the point where your wrist meets your hand, in between the two tendons. You can press on that point until you feel a pulse to relieve nausea. In fact, this is the idea behind the popular motion sickness relief bands that many people wear.

Next time you have a headache or are feeling queasy, give the principles of acupuncture a try for yourself, whether you’re at the office, in the comfort of your own home, or on the go.

Whether you’ve been fighting headaches or hormonal issues, or are just curious about how ancient healing traditions can boost your overall health and wellness, you might want to give acupuncture a try in 2018. After all, there’s got to be a reason that the treatment’s popularity has lasted for thousands of years and spread all the way around the globe.

“It is important to know what a powerful tool acupuncture is for preventative medicine,” Beristain says. “Acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine focus on achieving balance in the body in order to prevent disease and maintain optimal health. Therefore, the consistent practice of acupuncture is really a great addition to the wellness regime of any person.”

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