The word "acupuncture" is derived from two Latin words that mean "to penetrate with a needle" - (acus = needle, punctura = to penetrate).
By inserting tiny, hair-like needles, acupuncture stimulates specific points on the body to increase the blood flow and oxygen, stimulate specific organs, and vitalize the nervous system. It also triggers the release of the body’s internal chemicals that have pain-relieving properties, such as endorphins and enkephalins.
By stimulating the flow of blood and oxygen to the organs and systems of the body, acupuncture does not focus on treating the symptoms as with traditional medicine, but instead it aims to restore balance to the body. It provides the body with a tool to naturally heal itself.
Acupuncture is one of the four pillars of Oriental medicine (also known as traditional Chinese medicine). It is classed as a complete system of healthcare dating back over 3,000 years. These branches include:
Similar to other natural approaches to healthcare, acupuncture is based on the concept that disease can only inhabit a body when a person's emotions and state of mind are out of balance.
Qi: Flow of Energy? Or Flow of Oxygen?
Learn more about how the simple mistranslation of two important words led the western world to confuse oxygen with energy, and blood vessels with meridians.
Two Methods of Acupuncture
Various methods of acupuncture have been developed in different Asian countries and each method is dependent on the different interpretations of classical acupuncture texts. Two main forms universally recognized are:
- Chinese Classical Five Element Acupuncture (CF-EA)
A Taoist healing tradition brought to the west by the late Professor J. R. Worsley (The Worsley Institute)
- Japanese Classical Acupuncture
With Japanese classical acupuncture, needling techniques are uniquely subtle. Very thin needles are used, which makes it much easier to insert the needles without any pain. The resulting stimulation is milder than in Chinese Acupuncture.
American practices of acupuncture incorporate medical traditions from China, Japan, Korea, and other countries.
Let's take a close look at how acupuncture works, what conditions it treats, and what to expect during a typical acupuncture session.
A Typical Acupuncture Session
During the first office visit, the Acupuncturist will ask for detailed information about your health condition and may ask other questions about lifestyle, stress factors, and your past health history.
Treatment will take place in a private room that often has a very relaxing and comforting ambiance, such as soft colors and soothing music. Most practitioners use a massage table or therapy bed. The client is comfortably clothed, with both socks and shoes removed. Clothing should be loose and comfortable, with top and pants/skirt as separate articles of clothing to allow the Acupuncturist to easily reach different areas of the body.
The acupuncturist will swab each acupoint being treated with alcohol before inserting a very fine needle into the skin at carefully chosen acupoints. The number of needles used during treatment and their location can vary, as can the depths at which they are inserted. Sometimes, a ruler may be used to measure the distance between various parts of the body to calculate the location of the acupoints (e.g. the distance from pelvic bone to knee that varies from person to person.
Reputable acupuncturists always use disposable and sterile needles and it is extremely rare to have complications from needle usage. Improper needle placement or a defect in the needle can cause soreness and pain during treatment, two reasons why it is very important to receive treatment from a qualified Acupuncturist. Because the needles used in acupuncture are much smaller than the standard hypodermic needle, they do not draw blood. They are also solid, not hollow.
After a series of needles have been inserted, they are left in place for a time period ranging from several minutes to an hour. The client is often left alone with the lights dimmed and some fall asleep during this time.
Needling techniques and treatment devices may be varied from treatment to treatment as the response to each treatment is observed. This helps stimulate new sources of healing within the body.
How Does Acupuncture Feel?
People experience Acupuncture differently, but most feel either no pain or an extremely minimal "prick" as the tiny needles are inserted (much less than the prick experienced during a medical injection because the acupuncture needle is so fine). Most report the sensation of the needle insertion as "barely noticeable." Occasionally, a mild tingling or achiness may be experienced during the session. A sensation similar to a mild electrical impulse can sometimes be felt in an area far from the insertion point that is affected by the increased blood and oxygen flow.
Usually, clients with acute conditions leave in less discomfort than when they walked in. With chronic conditions, often the effects are too subtle to immediately notice. As the treatments progress, the improvements become more and more apparent.
Depending on the treatment and acupoints being stimulated, some people feel energized by treatment while others feel relaxed. Occasionally, an acupoint may feel tender after the treatment, but this sensation fades quickly. In general, a sense of relaxation and well-being occurs both during and after treatments.
Following an acupuncture treatment, it is very important not to not engage in strenuous activities such as aerobics to allow the body to adjust and respond to the treatment.
How Many Treatments Will I Need?
After completing a health assessment, the acupuncturist will provide information on the estimated number of treatments needed and how much each will cost. The cost varies, but averages $50-75 per treatment and discounts often available based on the number of treatments required. As acupuncture is now covered by many insurance plans, check to see what coverage you may have and how many sessions are included. Some insurance plans cover acupuncture only for certain conditions, or to a limited extent.
One acupuncture session does not typically result in lasting pain relief. Usually, a series of sessions over a short period of time are needed (e.g. 2 or 3 times each week for several weeks). Relief may be felt immediately, but it may take several treatments before the relief is long-lasting. Based on client feedback, the acupuncturist may stimulate the same or different acupoints from the previous session.
With drugs, people often develop a tolerance or the need for an increased dosage to achieve the same required effect. This does not happen with acupuncture.
No Side Effects
Acupuncture is safe for people of all ages, including children, pregnant women, and the elderly. According to a recent, year-long study conducted at the Children's Hospital in Boston, pediatric acupuncture has proven successful in treating chronic pain conditions without any side effects. It is considered very beneficial for problems during pregnancy, a time when many medicines are contraindicated.
Acupuncture is particularly helpful for elderly people, especially as they are unable to take many painkillers that can interact with other drugs they have been prescribed. Acupuncture is often used to relieve joint pain and stiffness.
Acupuncture For Pets & Horses
The animal world is also experiencing the wonderful benefits of a more natural approach to medicine, including acupuncture and chiropractic. Many veterinarian clinics now integrate these services into their practice, and mobile acupuncturists are now offering these services to horses.
Choosing a Qualified Practitioner
More and more medical doctors, including neurologists, anesthesiologists, and specialists in various medicine, are either becoming trained in acupuncture or have developed a referral network that includes acupuncturists. Today, there are approximately 30,000 licensed acupuncturists in the US, 1/3 of which are located in California.(2)
Within the US
The regulation of acupuncture varies from country to country. Within the US, various states have established training standards and accreditation for licensed acupuncturists (also known as L.Ac.’s), with different requirements for obtaining a license to practice.
The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) is a non-profit organization established to ensure entry-level competency in the practice of acupuncture and Oriental medicine (AOM) through professional certification. All NCCAOM certification programs are accredited by the National Commission for Certification Agencies (NCCA). Each state has its own laws and requirements (view state-by-state requirements).
Ask if your practitioner has completed their education at an educational facility accredited by The Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine (ACAOM). This national accrediting agency is recognized by the US Dept. of Education for the accreditation of master's level certificate, diploma programs, and post-graduate doctoral programs in acupuncture and Oriental medicine.
In Canada, acupuncture is now regulated by the Traditional Chinese Medicine Act of 2006. In the UK, although the British Acupuncture Council website states it is the main regulating body for acupuncture, it is not legally regulated from a governmental perspective. In Australia, regulation varies from state to state. Other countries throughout the world have organizations who offer various training courses and certifications programs, however these programs may or may not regulated under the law.
- Oriental medicine (Acupuncture, Chinese Herbalism, Tui Na, QiGong)
- Bach Flower Remedies