Acupuncture originated in China thousands of years ago, and since then it’s been used to treat almost every imaginable disorder of the body or mind. That it’s been perceived as a cure-all is not surprising if we consider that, according to the inseparable fields of traditional Chinese philosophy and medicine, acupuncture gets straight to the source of every possible pain or feeling of malaise. It was developed with the understanding that the human body contains meridians along which the vital force, known as qi, travels. The proper flow of qi is dependent on yin and yang, the two opposing yet complementary forces of the material world. When yin and yang are not balanced within the body, they block the movement of qi, resulting in discomfort or illness. That’s where it comes in: placing thin needles along a blocked meridian is said to restore the balance of yin and yang and, in turn, the free flow of qi.
Because acupuncture has been used to treat so many ailments for so long, Western doctors and scientists have become interested in how—or even if—acupuncture works. No one has found physical evidence that the meridians central to the Chinese medical tradition are for real, and even though studies often suggest that acupuncture relieves the symptoms of some ailments, the same studies fail to positively identify a physiological mechanism of that relief. In fact, some doctors believe that acupuncture is nothing more than an elaborate placebo: patients believe it’s working; therefore it works. Another common notion is that the insertion of needles into the skin stimulates nerves, ultimately triggering a change in brain chemistry that makes the patient feel better. But even lacking a solid explanation of acupuncture’s mechanisms, Western doctors are increasingly recommending acupuncture as a complementary treatment for a range of physical and psychological conditions.
A Few Words of Caution
Only allow a licensed, experienced acupuncturist to perform acupuncture on you. While the most common side effects of acupuncture are minor things like bruising and minimal bleeding, it is possible for acupuncture needles to enter internal organs or transmit infection. The more skilled the acupuncturist, the lower the risk of both minor and serious side effects.
According to the law in most states, acupuncturists should only use sterile, single-use needles. Confirm that your acupuncturist is obeying this law before letting him or her stick you with anything.
Acupuncture can sometimes cause a small amount of bleeding where the needles enter the skin. If you have a bleeding disorder, this could turn into a large amount of bleeding, so it’s probably best not to risk it.
Uses for Acupuncture
People use acupuncture to treat back pain more than any other ailment, and it really does work: one recent, well-designed study found that acupuncture can relieve chronic back pain even better than conventional treatments like narcotics and physical therapy. Nevertheless, most doctors still recommend that, at first anyway, patients continue other treatments along with acupuncture. But studies have shown that back pain patients undergoing acupuncture treatments often see their need for pain medication decrease. That makes sense if scientists are correct in hypothesizing that even the painless insertion of needles into the skin prompts the brain to produce more of our built-in painkillers. However acupuncture works, the effect seems to last, since many patients report lower levels of pain even months after quitting acupuncture treatment.
Acupuncture is a popular treatment for headaches, too.Again, empiricists like me find ourselves leaning on the notion that acupuncture alters brain chemistry. Although doctors aren’t entirely sure what causes headaches, those studying both tension headaches and migraines have noted that levels of brain chemicals such as endorphins and serotonin decrease during a headache. Because these substances are central to the nervous system’s regulation of pain, it’s no surprise that lower-than-normal concentrations of them would be associated with, well, pain. And if acupuncture does in fact signal the brain to make more of this good stuff, then it should aid in the restoration of the chemical balance your head needs to help it stop throbbing.
Arthritis is yet another common pain disorder that often sends people to their local acupuncture clinic. Scientific studies haven’t consistently shown acupuncture to be effective against arthritis pain and stiffness, but many doctors still recommend that patients with rheumatoid arthritis try acupuncture at least once. If acupuncture does work by amping up our bodies’ natural pain-response systems, we can expect that some people will garner more relief from it than others, simply because we don’t all have exactly the same system to work with. Acupuncturists also caution that some patients experience short-lived relief—or none at all—on their first visit but get better results over a period of regular treatment. Regardless, it’s probably a good idea to try acupuncture without quitting the more conventional arthritis treatments prescribed by your doctor.
Doctors also commonly suggest acupuncture as a supplementary treatment for gastrointestinal disorders such as IBS. Once again, evidence that acupuncture promotes a healthy gut is more anecdotal (many people claim it works for them) than empirical (so far, studies have only sometimes suggested that it works). But because acupuncture carries so few side effects or risks, it may be worth trying. The idea is that an acupuncture-induced rise in neurotransmitters like serotonin and endorphins can prevent or relieve the cramping and abdominal pain associated with a bowel disorder. Acupuncture may also help to eliminate a common trigger for IBS symptoms: stress. Patients often describe acupuncture therapy as being very relaxing, so regular treatments could keep your mind—and your colon in turn—at ease.
Finally, bringing the brain’s chemistry back into balance with acupuncture may be a way to reverse the effects of fluctuating female hormones: namely, PMS and menstrual cramps. If acupuncture increases the brain’s production of natural painkillers like endorphins, then it seems obvious that it could relieve painful symptoms like uterine cramping or breast tenderness. But some researchers also associate endorphins with mood elevation, and women sometimes report that acupuncture helps to alleviate the depression, mood swings, or irritability they usually experience during the week or so before their periods. However, it may not be enough to receive acupuncture only while symptoms are present. Weekly treatments throughout the month could help to prevent menstrual symptoms in the first place.
Other Uses for Acupuncture
Traditionally, acupuncture has been used to treat a mind-boggling array of conditions. Unfortunately, Western scientists have simply not had the resources or time to thoroughly study each and every one of those uses. When they do manage to test one, they very often emerge from the study with inconclusive or contradictory results. On the bright side, the only real risk associated with skillfully performed acupuncture is a somewhat lighter wallet. So, if you have the means—or an insurance policy that covers alternative treatments—you may want to go ahead and test acupuncture’s effectiveness yourself, especially if you’re plagued by one of the following:
- an addiction to cigarettes or other drugs
- insomnia or another sleep disorder
- a weight problem