What is Chinese medicine?
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is thousands of years old and has changed little over the centuries. Its basic concept is that a vital force of life, called Qi, surges through the body. Any imbalance to Qi can cause disease and illness. This imbalance is most commonly thought to be caused by an alteration in the opposite and complementary forces that make up the Qi. These are called yin and yang.
Ancient Chinese believed that humans are microcosms of the larger surrounding universe, and are interconnected with nature and subject to its forces. Balance between health and disease is a key concept. TCM treatment seeks to restore this balance through treatment specific to the individual.
It is believed that to regain balance, you must achieve the balance between the internal body organs and the external elements of earth, fire, water, wood, and metal.
Treatment to regain balance may involve:
- Moxibustion (the burning of herbal leaves on or near the body)
- Cupping (the use of warmed glass jars to create suction on certain points of the body)
- Herbal remedies
- Movement and concentration exercises (such as tai chi)
- Mindfulness practices
Acupuncture is a component of TCM commonly found in Western medicine and has received the most study of all the alternative therapies. Some herbal treatments used in TCM can act as medicines and be very effective but may also have serious side effects. In 2004, for example, the FDA banned the sale of dietary supplements containing ephedra and plants containing ephedra group alkaloids due to complications, such as heart attack and stroke. Ephedra is a Chinese herb used in dietary supplements for weight loss and performance enhancement. However, the ban does not apply to certain herbal products prepared under TCM guidelines intended only for short-term use rather than long-term dosing. It also does not apply to OTC and prescription drugs or to herbal teas.
If you are thinking of using TCM, a certified practitioner is your safest choice. The federally recognized Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM) accredits schools that teach acupuncture and TCM. Many of the states that license acupuncture require graduation from an ACAOM-accredited school. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine offers separate certification programs in acupuncture, Chinese herbology, and Oriental bodywork.
TCM should not be used as a replacement for conventional or allopathic treatment, especially for serious conditions, but it may be beneficial when used as complementary therapy. Since some TCM herbal medicines can interfere or be toxic when combined with Western medicines, you should inform your doctor if you are using TCM.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a treatment based on Chinese medicine, a system of healing that dates back thousands of years. At the core of Chinese medicine is the notion that a type of life force, or energy, known as qi (pronounced “chee”) flows through energy pathways (meridians) in the body. Each meridian corresponds to one organ, or group of organs, that govern particular bodily functions. Achieving the proper flow of qi is thought to create health and wellness. Qi maintains the dynamic balance of yin and yang, which are complementary opposites. According to Chinese medicine, everything in nature has both yin and yang. An imbalance of qi (too much, too little, or blocked flow) causes disease. To restore balance to the qi, an acupuncturist inserts needles at points along the meridians. These acupuncture points are places where the energy pathway is close to the surface of the skin.
What is the history of acupuncture?
The earliest recorded use of acupuncture dates from 200 BCE. Knowledge of acupuncture spread from China along Arab trade routes towards the West.
Acupuncture gained attention in the United States in the 1970s. New York Times reporter James Reston, who received acupuncture after undergoing an emergency appendectomy while traveling in China,. Reston was so impressed with the post-operative pain relief the procedure provided that he wrote about acupuncture upon returning to the United States.
In 1997, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) formally recognized acupuncture as a mainstream medicine healing option with a statement documenting the procedure’s safety and efficacy for treating a range of health conditions. While awareness of acupuncture is growing, many conventional physicians are still unfamiliar with both the theory and practice of acupuncture.
There are thousands of clinical studies on the benefits of acupuncture. Acupuncture has been used successfully in the treatment of conditions ranging from musculoskeletal problems (back pain, neck pain, and others) to nausea, migraine headache, anxiety, and insomnia and more.
How does acupuncture work?
The effects of acupuncture are complex. How it works is not entirely clear. Research suggests that the needling process, and other techniques used in acupuncture, may produce a variety of effects in the body and the brain. One theory is that stimulated nerve fibers transmit signals to the spinal cord and brain, activating the body’s central nervous system. The spinal cord and brain then release hormones responsible for making us feel less pain while improving overall health. In fact, a study using images of the brain confirmed that acupuncture increases our pain threshold, which may explain why it produces long-term pain relief. Acupuncture may also increase blood circulation and body temperature, affect white blood cell activity (responsible for our immune function), reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and regulate blood sugar levels.
What does an acupuncturist do?
In addition to asking questions, the acupuncturist may take your pulse at several points along the wrist and look at the shape, color, and coating of your tongue. The acupuncturist may also look at the color and texture of your skin, your posture, and other physical characteristics that offer clues to your health. You will lie down on a padded examining table, and the acupuncturist will insert the needles, twirling or gently jiggling each as it goes in. You may not feel the needles at all, or you may feel a twitch or a quick twinge of pain that disappears when the needle is completely inserted. Once the needles are all in place, you rest for 15 to 60 minutes. During this time, you will probably feel relaxed and sleepy and may even doze off. At the end of the session, the acupuncturist quickly and painlessly removes the needles.
For certain conditions, acupuncture is more effective when the needles are heated, using a technique known as “moxibustion.” The acupuncturist lights a small bunch of the dried herb moxa (mugwort) and holds it above the needles. The herb, which burns slowly and gives off a little smoke and a pleasant, incense-like smell, never touches the body. Another variation is electrical acupuncture. This technique consists of hooking up electrical wires to the needles and running a weak current through them. In this procedure, you may feel a mild tingling or nothing at all. Acupuncturists trained in Chinese herbal preparations may prescribe herbs along with acupuncture.
Are there different styles of acupuncture?
There are several different approaches to acupuncture. Among the most common in the United States today are:
- Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) based acupuncture. The most commonly practiced in the United States, it bases a diagnosis on eight principles of complementary opposites (yin/yang, internal/external, excess/deficiency, hot/cold).
- French energetic acupuncture. Mostly used by MD acupuncturists, it emphasizes meridian patterns, in particular the yin/yang pairs of primary meridians.
- Korean hand acupuncture. Based on the principle that the hands and feet have concentrations of qi, and that applying acupuncture needles to these areas is effective for the entire body.
- Auricular acupuncture. This technique is widely used in treating addiction disorders. It is based on the idea that the ear is a reflection of the body and that applying acupuncture needles to certain points on the ear affects corresponding organs.
- Myofascial-based acupuncture known colloquially as “Dry Needling” * Often practiced by physical therapists, it involves feeling the meridian lines in search of tender points, then applying needles. Tender points indicate areas of abnormal energy flow.
- Japanese styles of acupuncture. Sometimes referred to as “meridian therapy,” it emphasizes needling technique and feeling meridians in diagnosis.
- Dry needling is a simplified acupuncture treatment often performed by other medical practitioners such as chiropractor. Dry needling focuses on muscle pain, and trigger points, like a massage. Many unskilled medical professionals use dry needling as a modality. Look for “L.Ac. Dipl. Ac. to be sure that you are being treated by an actual acupuncturist.
How many treatments do I need?
The number of acupuncture treatments you need depends on the complexity of your illness, whether it is a chronic or recent condition, and your general health. For example, you may need only one treatment for a recent wrist sprain, while a long-term illness may require treatments for several months to achieve good results.
What is acupuncture good for?
Acupuncture is effective for pain relief. In addition, acupuncture can be a helpful part of a treatment plan for many illnesses. A partial list includes:
Addiction (such as alcoholism), asthma, bronchitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, constipation, diarrhea, facial tics, fibromyalgia, headaches, irregular menstrual cycles, polycystic ovarian syndrome, low back pain, menopausal symptoms, menstrual cramps, osteoarthritis, sinusitis, spastic colon (often called irritable bowel syndrome), stroke rehabilitation, tendinitis, tennis elbow, and urinary problems, such as incontinence.
You can safely combine acupuncture with prescription drugs and other conventional treatments.
The American Academy of Medical Acupuncture also lists a wide range of conditions for which acupuncture is appropriate. In addition to those listed above, they recommend acupuncture for sports injuries, sprains, strains, whiplash, neck pain, sciatica, nerve pain due to compression, overuse syndromes similar to carpal tunnel syndrome, pain resulting from spinal cord injuries, allergies, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), sore throat (called pharyngitis), high blood pressure, gastroesophageal reflux (felt as heartburn or indigestion), ulcers, chronic and recurrent bladder and kidney infections, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), infertility, endometriosis, anorexia, memory problems, insomnia, multiple sclerosis, sensory disturbances, drug detoxification, depression, anxiety, and other psychological disorders.
Should anyone avoid acupuncture?
In general, acupuncture is safe and well tolerated. One large study found only 43 minor adverse events associated with 34,407 acupuncture treatments. No serious adverse effects were reported. Some health care providers may avoid treatment during pregnancy. Others may be very competent in treating women who are pregnant. There are certain points that are contraindicated during pregnancy, however other points are thought to benefit pregnancy. Make sure your acupuncture practitioner is competent in addressing the question of risks and benefits of acupuncture during pregnancy before you receive treatment. Tell your acupuncturist about any treatments or medications you are taking and all medical conditions you have.
Should I watch out for anything?
Be sure your acupuncturist is a licensed acupuncturist. In some states an MD can perform acupuncture legally, but the results would be due to luck or placebo. Find a professional by using your states online search system.
If your acupuncturist prescribes herbs and would like you to take them as part of your treatment, ask about drug interactions. Herbs can interact with drugs you may be taking and cause side effects. Herbs are potent substances that can be harmful if you suffer from certain conditions. Ask where the herbs are manufactured, some herbs are sold from China and have not been through the testing process of U.S.A. and may be found to contain pharmaceuticals or heavy metals. Do not buy herbs on your own without consultation from a licensed professional.
How can I find a qualified practitioner?
Most states require acupuncturists to be licensed and confer a title (L.Ac.). The American Academy of Medical Acupuncture can provide a list of licensed physicians in your area who are also trained to perform acupuncture. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine certifies acupuncturists (Dipl. Ac) and practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine (Dipl. CH) who pass a qualifying exam. Other medical practitioners may perform acupuncture as well. In particular many naturopathic physicians and Oriental Medical Doctors (OMDs) practice acupuncture along with medical doctors and nurse practitioners. California and New York have separate licensing boards, with their own websites to search for licensing.