What is Acupuncture?

acupuncture spot diagram

Acupuncture is an ancient traditional Chinese medicine practice based on the belief that the human body has many interconnected points, known as acupuncture points. These interconnected points create an energy flow known as ‘Chi’ that is responsible for overall health. The disruption of the Chi can cause various diseases. Acupuncture seeks to improve the flow of the Chi by inserting needles into the body along these acupuncture points, thus improving health.

Although a form of oriental medicine, acupuncture is now gaining wide popularity in the West. Medical acupuncture relieves different forms of pain, including low back pain, muscle pain, arthritis pain, neck pain, tension headaches, menstrual cramps, and many more. Acupuncture also increases blood flow and treats several other chronic conditions.

How Acupuncture Works

Acupuncture is a form of complementary and alternative medicine. Acupuncturists (people that practice acupuncture) use very thin needles known as acupuncture needles to apply pressure to acupuncture points along the body’s meridians. Instead of needles, acupuncturists may use their palms, fingers, elbows, or other medical devices to apply pressure.

The goal of acupuncture is to restore optimal health by rebalancing disrupted Chi. There is scientific evidence of acupuncture’s physical benefits, and many proponents claim that acupuncture treatments also improve the mind and spirit. It is often believed that an acupuncture practitioner can transmit one person’s vital energy to another, although there is no evidence for this claim.

In acupuncture practice, there are several acupuncture points on the body. Acupuncture points are anatomically defined sites on the skin that correspond to certain points inside the body. Acupuncture points can be categorized in various ways. One method divides the points into groups based on their relation to recognized tendino-muscular and neural structures. For instance, motor sites where a nerve enters a muscle are type I acupoints. At these places, maximum muscular contraction is accomplished with the least amount of electrical stimulation. Type II points are located on superficial nerves in the sagittal plane at dorsal and ventral midlines. Type III points are located in areas with a high density of superficial nerves and nerve Plexi, and type IV points are found where tendons join muscles.

Despite its benefits backed by evidence, the exact mechanism by which acupuncture works is unknown. This has led to Western practitioners often attributing the benefit of acupuncture to factors like reduced muscle tension or improved circulation and release of endorphins.

What conditions can Acupuncture treat?

When performed right, acupuncture stimulates the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), causing the release of chemicals into muscles and other body regions. Acupuncture treatment is commonly employed to relieve pain and treat various chronic conditions.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) studies have shown that acupuncture is an effective treatment for various conditions. Thus today, many physiotherapists use acupuncture alongside conventional treatments to treat conditions that may not easily be managed with conventional treatment. Acupuncture’s increasing popularity also stems from its low risk of side effects. Although, acupuncture could result in abscesses or nerve damage if done incorrectly.

Common health conditions that have been reported to get better with acupuncture include;

Nausea: acupuncture has been shown in research to be pivotal in treating nausea of various forms. These include; post-surgical nausea, intraoperative nausea, pregnancy-related nausea, motion sickness, etc.

Cancer: Acupuncture treatments are believed to help relieve symptoms associated with cancer. Ordinarily, acupuncture helps with the chronic pain associated with cancer and helps relieve nausea caused by chemotherapy. In addition, acupuncture is believed to help reduce stress and improve energy levels in cancer patients.

Arthritis pain: Acupuncture is believed to help relieve the pain and inflammation associated with arthritis.

Mental abnormalities: There are claims that acupuncture is an effective treatment option for several mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, although there is no scientific evidence to back up these claims yet. There are also claims that acupuncture helps to manage addictions.

Regardless of acupuncture’s benefits, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) advice that it should not be used in place of conventional treatment

acupuncture infographic

Acupuncture as a Treatment for Pain

Pain can be described as acute or chronic. While acute pain has a specific treatable cause and goes away within a short while, chronic pain is long-term and often has no defined cause or treatment. The burden of chronic pain on the sufferer and society is significant.

Chronic pain is commonly treated with medications. However, the cost of medications is high, and the results are often hard to see. Thus, medical practitioners are looking toward complementary and alternative medicine to help patients with chronic pain.

What causes pain?

Pain is an unpleasant sensation that occurs in response to tissue injury, nerve damage or other psychological factors. The pain pathway is a very complex one, with many physical and psychological factors contributing to the sensation of pain.

Some of the most common causes of pain include;

  • Injuries – strains, fractures, bruises
  • Conditions such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, endometriosis, and fibromyalgia
  • Colds and flu
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Stomach and muscle cramps
  • Toothache
  • Trauma

Types of pain

Pain can be classified into different types. Some prominent types of pain include;

  • Acute pain is temporary discomfort brought on by an injury or sickness, often lasting for three months or less. Pain lessens once the illness or damage has healed.
  • Chronic pain is persistent discomfort that lasts for months or years without going away. It can be continual or intermittent and is frequently linked to emotional problems or long-term illnesses like fibromyalgia and arthritis.
  • Nociceptive pain, which can be brought on by exterior tissue damage such as scratching your knee or slamming your arm, manifests as a harsh, throbbing ache. Acute or chronic nociceptive pain can affect the skin, bones, tendons, muscles, and joints.
  • Neuropathic pain occurs as a result of nerve injury. This pain manifests as a shooting, stabbing, or burning sensation. It is a type of persistent discomfort that can impair touch sensitivity and cause movement problems.
acupuncture pain relief

Acupuncture for pain management

Although acupuncture is not yet regarded as first-line therapy for pain management, more people are growing aware of its advantages and are willing to try it as a pain management method. Research shows that the global market for complementary medical practices is growing exponentially, thanks to acupuncture.

Some scientific studies, including randomized controlled trials, demonstrate acupuncture’s efficacy in pain management.

When employed in pain management, acupuncture works by:

  • Reducing pain and discomfort by relaxing the muscles and triggering the production of serotonin and endorphins, which are naturally occurring painkillers.
  • Reducing inflammation by boosting the body’s production of cortisol, a hormone that aids in regulating inflammation.
  • Reducing stiffness and spasms in the muscles. Acupuncture needles placed along trigger points help loosen restricted muscles and relieve pain caused by overactive muscles and involuntary muscular spasms.
  • Increasing blood flow by regulating key neurochemicals that both relax and expand blood arteries. This is particularly helpful in migraines and tension headaches where vasoconstriction and increased intracranial pressure are implicated
  • Reducing stress and anxiety by controlling the hormones that trigger the stress response (cortisol, serotonin, noradrenaline, dopamine).
  • Aiding tissue healing and repair by stimulating fibroblast release; these cells are found in connective tissue that secrete collagen proteins to maintain tissue health.

Evidence of Acupuncture’s Benefit in Pain

There is some scientific evidence that acupuncture helps relieve certain types of pain, such as chronic lower-back pain, tension headaches, and migraine. However, acupuncture’s role in arthritis is highly debatable.

Inserting needles in certain acupuncture points has been shown in scientific studies to stimulate areas of the brain that control stress and pain sensation, thus, promoting relaxation and reducing pain perception.

While its effects are more pronounced for acute pain, health professionals continue to debate its efficacy in chronic pain, as reported in an issue of the British Medical Journal (BMJ). A large review of over twenty thousand patient data showed that acupuncture had moderate benefits compared to conventional therapy for chronic pain management but had better effects than placebo. This is evidence of the efficacy of acupuncture.

Despite evidence of its efficacy, many medical professionals believe that the available evidence is insufficient and acupuncture should not be recommended medically for pain management.

face acupuncture safety

Is Acupuncture Safe?

Acupuncture is a generally safe practice. However, like all procedures, there are risks associated with them. Acupuncture is safe for you if you suffer from most medical conditions, including cancer, arthritis, hypertension, etc. However, acupuncture may not be particularly safe for you if you suffer from;

  • stage IV metastatic cancers
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • have a bleeding disorder
  • have varicose veins; or
  • you are heavily pregnant

Before engaging in any acupuncture procedure, it is essential that you seek medical advice from your doctor to assess your health condition and establish that acupuncture is safe for you. If your doctor does not give you the green light, you’re better off avoiding acupuncture.

One of the benefits of acupuncture is that it typically has few side effects. However, if performed wrongly, you stand the risk of;

  • bleeding and soreness from needle insertion sites
  • abscesses from insertion sites
  • infection, if unsterilized needles are used

In the U.S., the FDA regulates acupuncture needles as medical devices. Thus, these needles must meet specific standards of quality and safety before being used in practice by a licensed practitioner only.

Bottom Line

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medical practice that involves needle insertion at certain points to restore balance to the Chi and treat the resulting condition. This Oriental practice has gained wide popularity in the West and is now used in treating several forms of pain, including lower back pain, nerve pain, migraines, and muscle pain. Scientific evidence demonstrates the efficacy of acupuncture; however, there is still skepticism from several medical practitioners.

Acupuncture is a safe practice, but it still has its risks. It is essential that you speak with your doctor before undergoing this therapy to ascertain that you are safe. Remember, acupuncture does not replace conventional therapies for any illness. Rather, they should be used in combination for the best results.

References

Acupuncture – can it relieve pain?

Acupuncture versus Medication for Pain Management