- Melea Alexander, MSTOM, Dipl. Ac. (NCCAOM)
Traditional Eastern Medicine medicine practices like cupping and acupuncture are relatively new to the U.S., and naturally there are lots of questions about how they work. Below are answers to some of the more commonly asked questions about acupuncture, moxibustion, cupping, and gua sha therapies.
What is acupuncture? Acupuncture is a medical technique which uses very fine, solid filaments (acupuncture needles) inserted at specific points on the body to promote the body’s own self-healing mechanism. The filaments create micro-traumas at the site of insertion, stimulating the body’s immune response and prompting the release of endorphins.
Does it hurt? There is sometimes a mild pinch at the site of insertion, but this sensation fades quickly; there is generally more discomfort as the filament breaks the skin simply because that’s where pain receptors are located. Once the filament reaches therapeutic depth—usually in the superficial muscle tissue—there is a more subtle sensation. Some describe it as a dull ache, heaviness, or a sensation of warmth or coolness. Often with specific styles of acupuncture for orthopedic and musculoskeletal complaints (and occasionally with non-orthopedic styles of acupuncture) there is a muscle twitch, or fasciculation; this helps to reset the fibers of the tissue, correcting tension in too-tight or overly lax muscles.
Do I have to believe in it for it to work? How does it work? Acupuncture works with the laws of physics, so it’s not a faith-based practice, but a scientific one. By stimulating points on the body with heat, pressure, or filaments, it is possible to increase blood perfusion, mitigate pain, promote lymphatic drainage, and generally speed healing by prompting immune response. You don’t have to believe in it for it to work, but the results can definitely feel magical!
I had acupuncture for _______, but it didn’t work/symptoms returned. Why would i try it again? Sometimes, despite our best efforts, individual practitioners are unable to help a particular patient or condition; we all have our strengths and weaknesses, just like other care providers. If you tried acupuncture and didn’t see the results you were hoping for, you might consider trying another acupuncturist. Many of us have specialties or sub-specialties based on our interests, training, or prior professional experience; you might see if you can find an L.Ac. specializing in the area of your concern: reproductive health, GI function, musculoskeletal pain, oncology, immunology, etc. It’s also helpful to keep in mind that the “dosing” of acupuncture is as important as the therapy itself. If you’ve had a condition for many years, you may reasonably expect that it will take some time—weeks, and sometimes months of regular treatment—to see permanent improvement.
Is acupuncture good for __________? In most cases, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Acupuncture can help improve fertility (see Jane Lyttleton’s website for some great research: http://acupuncturepregnancy.com.au/research-reviews/); help manage the symptoms of chronic GI complaints like IBS, Crohn’s, and ulcerative colitis; address the side effects of cancer treatment; lessen symptoms of depression and anxiety; improve sleep depth and quality; regulate menses; relieve PMS and menopause symptoms; aid immune function; reduce allergy signs & symptoms; mitigate stress; and ease acute & chronic pain. In 2014 the Joint Commission, an accrediting and certifying body for over 21,000 care programs and facilities in the U.S., issued a new standard for pain management which includes acupuncture, massage therapy, chiropractic care, and physical therapy as first-line treatment over pharmaceutical intervention (https://www.jointcommission.org/assets/1/18/Clarification_of_the_Pain_Management__Standard.pdf).
I’m terrified of needles! Can you still help me? Yes! There are many needle-free therapies which fall under the scope of a Licensed Acupuncturist: cupping, gua sha, moxibustion, and acupressure are all examples. If you watched the Olympic swim team compete, you may have noticed purple polka dots on Michael Phelps; they are the result of cupping therapy. Cupping is like a reverse massage; instead of pressing the muscles against the bone the muscles are lifted away from the bone, allowing increased blood flow to any area with congested metabolic waste. Gua Sha is similar, but uses a smooth-edged tool—usually a ceramic spoon or a small jar lid—to gently press metabolic waste out of the soft tissue. Both cupping and gua sha can leave painless marks, but they fade in a day or two and generally disappear completely within a week; both therapies can be used with good success for either musculoskeletal complaints or for internal disorders. Moxibustion is a gentle warming technique that helps soften tissue and increase circulation; it’s very relaxing and most people think it smells nice, too. Acupressure is a treatment using the same body points that acupuncture uses, but without the needles; instead thumbs, hands, elbows, or knees are used to compress the point for a therapeutic effect. Finally, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, recently issued a meta-analysis of 29 studies with nearly 18,000 patients, concluding that the effects of acupuncture are clinically relevant and that referral for acupuncture is a good option for patients with chronic pain: https://nccih.nih.gov/research/results/spotlight/091012 And the World Health Organization has listed more than one hundred indications for acupuncture based on strength of evidence: http://www.evidencebasedacupuncture.org/who-official-position/ Vickers AJ, Cronin AM, Maschino AC, et al. Acupuncture for chronic pain: individual patient data meta-analysis. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2012;172(19):1444-1453.