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Does Acupuncture Work?
The most frequently asked question is "Does Acupuncture Work?,” As an Acupuncturist our days and conversations are filled with educating others about our medicine. To be an acupuncturist, you also have to be an educator.The problem with this question, “ Does Acupuncture Work however, is that precise answers are not available. Certainly Chinese Medicine has strong sets of theories which guide diagnosis and point selection, but to understand and explain this in exact Western terms is difficult at best. There are plausible theories and related research for those who would like to probe more deeply into the issue. For those in a hurry, the short answer is yes it works but there are a number of theories.
So- why ask the question at all? As individuals we are looking for answers to our various health issues, as practitioners we are looking for the most effective treatments, and as researchers we are looking at the how and why of the results that appear in clinics around the world. From many perspectives a strong western scientific understanding of acupuncture is unnecessary and possibly even impractical if not detrimental. After all, the medicine has survived for over 3000 years without detailed western scientific understandings. There have been no problems calling depression “Liver Qi Stagnation” or fatigue “Kidney Qi Deficiency” and using those patterns to create appropriate treatments. It has only been within the last 50 years or so that anyone was even concerned with trying to understand the biochemical mechanisms of acupuncture. Most people just ask the question out of curiosity.
How does Acupuncture Work?
As stated at the very beginning of the article we simply don't know how acupuncture works in measurable western scientific terms. What we “know,” but find difficult to measure, is that acupuncture appears to:
While we can observe these changes and theorize about them based on clinical experiences we still do not have a “how” with acupuncture. For now, as practitioners, it is important to stay firmly rooted in the thousands of years of Chinese Medical history, theory, and techniques of application. And, as others have done before us, to work to extend and “perfect” these theories as we mature as practitioners. For the public, this is a crucial reason why acupuncture should only be performed by fully trained acupuncturists who have the theoretical backing to properly apply acupuncture. As you may know, in some areas people from other medical fields (MD's, DC's, etc.) are allowed to practice acupuncture with little or no training. While many of these practitioners may have the medical knowledge to not hurt someone with acupuncture they rarely have a grasp of the deeper theories of the medicine which will lead to inferior results in many cases. Perhaps more importantly for the field, they will not be as able to share their experiences as practitioners because they do not speak the “language” of Chinese Medicine.
So, for now, just know that acupuncture does work on a broad range of cases but you will see differences from practitioner to practitioner, from style to style, and what works one time may not work another time. There is no fault in exploring various practitioners as a patient and various styles of acupuncture as practitioners and patients. Communicating with your practitioner about what felt most effective or what didn't feel right is useful as we are all explorers to some degree in this medicine. Knowing that we all want the same thing from this vast array of theory and techniques – that is to be well – it is an exciting journey. So while I cannot tell you exactly how we are going to accomplish health in precise western terms, a strong root in the long history of this medicine can certainly help to get us there.
Does it Hurt?
Although most people do not find acupuncture painful, it is not without sensation. Generally, needle insertions are experienced as a sensation of pressure against the skin. On particularly sensitive points, there may be sensation like a pinch or a mosquito bite. When the needle connects with the qi and is in the appropriate location, patients tend to experience either a strange electrical-like sensation traveling down the channel or a dull, heavy aching sensation similar to the feeling when your foot falls asleep, after the pins and needles stage.
What is the difference between acupuncture, acupressure, and electro-acupuncture?
Acupuncture is the insertion of needles at specific points on the body. Acupressure uses the same points, but stimulates them with pressure rather than with needles. The effects are not as deep or as long lasting as acupuncture. Electro-acupuncture either uses electricity to stimulate the acupuncture points or uses electricity on the needles to maintain constant stimulation of the point during the treatment. When used in conjunction with needles, it is a stronger treatment than acupuncture alone. Stronger in this case means more sensation at the points treated during the treatment, and longer lasting results for some patients. Electroacupuncture may be too strong a treatment for weaker patients, children, and seniors.
Can I catch anything from being treated?
Most of the risk of disease resulting from acupuncture is related to inadequately sterilized and inappropriately stored reusable needles. We use single one use sterilized disposable needles. When the needles are removed they are put in a Sharps container and disposed of as medical waste.
Do needles get broken or stuck?
With single use needles, it is extremely rare for a needle to be broken during a treatment. Repeated sterilization of needles tends to weaken the structure of the metal, which is why broken needles were more common prior to single use needles became the norm. It is possible for a needle to break if the patient moves around a lot while the needles are in deeper muscle tissue or if a patient has a muscle spasm while the needles are in. However, the needles used are very small, very flexible, and generally do not break with ease. Stuck needles are more common than broken needles, but this also is a rare occurrence. Generally, when a needle appears stuck, the body just isn't ready to let go of it yet. Waiting 5 minutes or so and coming back to it is usually all that is needed for that stuck needle to lift right out with ease. In some cases where the patient has particularly tight muscles or has moved during the treatment, muscle fibers get wrapped around the needle making it more difficult to remove. This is easily fixed by massaging a point near the stuck needle or inserting a needle a point or two down the channel to loosen the qi in that area.
Can I take herbs with my medications?
There are many schools of thought regarding this question. Most medical doctors will discourage taking herbs in conjunction with medications, and some Chinese Medicine practitioners discourage taking medications if you are using herbal formulas. The fact is, most patients who seek out practitioners of Chinese Medicine are also under the care of a physician, and are taking multiple medications. It is really a matter of opinion whether it is safe to combine the two. In general, it is not a good idea to take herbs for the same conditions you take medications for. If you are taking high blood pressure medication, adding herbs to lower the blood pressure may lead to a negative interaction. However, if your practitioner recommends herbs to descend your liver yang due to symptoms of headache, irritability, dizziness and wiry pulse, it is probably safe to take the formula along with your blood pressure medications. What you may find is that the next time you see your doctor, your blood pressure is low enough to reduce the medications! There are some combinations of herbs and medications which should be avoided as they can decrease or increase the effectiveness of one another. If you are taking medications whether prescription, over the counter, or nutritional supplements, make sure you tell your Chinese medical practitioner so that she can make sure any herbs recommended will not interact adversely with your other medications.
How many treatments do I need?
The answer to this depends on your condition. Some acute and mild conditions might only require 2 or 3 treatments for example a Wry neck. Traditionally with an acute condition, a course of treatment is a series of 10 visits. They may be 2-3 times per week for a month, once per week for 3 months, or something completely different based on your specific needs. Usually, there is a period of more frequent treatment over a week or two, then a gradual reduction in frequency as the body recovers. Patients are encouraged to fully participate in any physical therapy or other western treatment that has been recommended while receiving their acupuncture treatment.
For people with more chronic conditions (say arthritis or hepatitis C or menopausal disorders), treatment is often ongoing, and may continue indefinitely. The goal is to find the frequency of treatment where the symptoms are under control to the greatest degree possible, and this will vary from patient to patient. For some people this is once per week, for others once per month or even less frequently. Treatment plans are individually tailored and revised as necessary to meet the needs of both the body and the budget.
How long does a treatment last?
Most acupuncture treatments last about an hour. An initial evaluation with treatment will last between 60 to 90 minutes and follow ups will be around 45 minutes depending on what additions like cupping and massage are used.
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