HOW DOES ACUPUNCTURE WORK?
Acupuncture achieves the desired results by stimulating specific points near or on the surface of the skin - acupuncture points - that have the ability to alter biochemical and physiological conditions in the body. Because acupuncture points are designated areas of electrical sensitivity, inserting needles at these points stimulates sensory receptors. This in turn stimulates nerves that transmit impulses to the hypothalamic-pituitary system in the brain. The hypothalamus-pituitary glands are responsible for releasing neurotransmitters and endorphins, the body's natural pain-killing hormones (thought to be some 200 times more potent than morphine). Endorphins play a significant role in the hormonal system, which is why acupuncture is effective in treating back pain, arthritis, PMS and infertility. The substances released as a result of acupuncture relax the body, and also regulate serotonin in the brain, which affects emotional states. Other physiological effects include increased circulation, decreased inflammation, relief of muscle spasms and increased T-cell count, which supports the immune system.
Western science posits that acupuncture triggers three primary mechanisms in the body:
Activation of opioid systems: Research has found that several types of pain-reducing opioids may be released into the central nervous system during acupuncture.
Changes in brain chemistry: Studies have shown that acupuncture may alter brain chemistry by altering the way in which neurotransmitters and neurohormones are released. Acupuncture has also been documented to affect sensation and involuntary body functions, such as immune reactions and processes involved in regulating blood pressure, blood flow and body temperature. Modulation of subcortical structures of the brain may be an important mechanism by which acupuncture exerts its complex multisystem effects.
Changes in blood flow: Acupuncture and Oriental medicine affects the circulation of blood to the affected area, which helps to remove pain-causing chemicals and restore normal function.
HOW DEEP DO THE NEEDLES GO?
Acupuncture points are located on or close to the skin's surface, but needles can be inserted from 1/16 to a few inches deep. The depth of insertion depends on the nature of the location and condition being addressed, the patients' size, age, and constitution, as well as the acupuncturist's style and training.
DO ACUPUNCTURE NEEDLES HURT?
There is little sensitivity to the insertion of acupuncture needles. One reason is that they are much finer than those used for injections and blood tests - 25 to 50 times thinner than hypodermic needles. Further, the actual insertion is done very quickly. While some feel nothing at all, others experience a brief moment of discomfort, sometimes followed by a mild sensation of cramping, tingling or numbness (desirable sensations known as "attaining qi"). The needles are left in place for 20 to 90 minutes. Most people find the experience relaxing, and some even fall asleep during sessions.
WHAT ARE SOME OTHER CHINESE MEDICINE TECHNIQUES BESIDES ACUPUNCTURE?
There are a variety of techniques used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Below are a few that are typically used in conjunction with acupuncture to enhance its effects:
Electro-Acupuncture: Acupuncture needles are used to conduct small electrical currents. This technique, often used in conjunction with acupuncture, has been proven to decrease pain, accelerate healing, and significantly reduce inflammation, edema and swelling.
Moxibustion: A technique in which a Chinese herb called mugwort or Artemisia Vulgaris is used to heat an acupuncture point, particularly in the treatment of certain debilitating conditions as well as arthritis and pain. Moxa is usually rolled into a stick, lit, and held over specific areas of the body.
Cupping: In cupping, a glass or plastic cup is suctioned onto the body and kept in place for about 10 minutes. This stimulates circulation, relieves swelling, and enhances the acupuncture or electro-acupuncture.
Gua Sha: Gua Sha literally means "scrape away heat". It is performed by applying pressurized strokes to the back using a specialized scraping instrument. Gua Sha is commonly used to prevent or treat a common cold or flu.
Tuina (or Tui Na): A form of Chinese body work used in conjunction with acupuncture for a variety of musculoskeletal and organ-related issues.
HOW MANY SESSIONS WILL I NEED?
Length, number and frequency of sessions vary. For most conditions, a series of several sessions is necessary to achieve the maximum benefit. After an initial consultation, the acupuncturist should provide you with a treatment plan that includes the techniques to be used, as well as the frequency and duration of treatment.
A typical series of sessions consists of 6 to 12 visits, once or twice a week, with sessions lasting 30 to 90 minutes each. Acute conditions, such as sprains, generally require less time and frequency, whereas more chronic or severe ailments may require several (or several dozen) sessions. Appointments are scheduled further and further apart after the optimal response has been achieved. Some people experience great benefits from weekly or monthly sessions.
HOW WILL I FEEL AFTER ACUPUNCTURE?
Patients normally feel relaxed and calm. You may feel tired or drowsy for a few hours if the experience is particularly strong. You may also experience a short-term flair-up of symptoms in the healing process. After a session, it is a good idea to sit quietly and relax. A gentle walk or very mild exercise can also be helpful. Avoid big meals, vigorous exercise, alcohol and stressful situations.
Questions and Answers provided by Dr. Daniel Hsu