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Acupuncture: Types, Conditions Treated and Potential Risks

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese healing art that has been proven effective in the treatment of a variety of conditions. It involves inserting needles into the skin at special points called acupoints where the body’s energy is believed to flow. The aim of this technique is to stimulate the flow of the body’s energy. Several other forms of acupuncture have developed over the years. Instead of needles, these other ways of stimulating the flow of the body’s energy include applying pressure, heat, electrical currents or laser light.

In the western world, acupuncture is most commonly used for pain relief. A body of reliable evidence shows that acupuncture works on back pain and dental pain, relieves migraines, anxiety, depression and helps with insomnia, nausea and vomiting. However, despite many bold claims acupuncture has not been shown to work for quitting smoking or for weight loss. Although not entirely free of risks, acupuncture is a fairly safe treatment in the right hands.

Types of Acupuncture

In the West, there are two types of acupuncturists – traditional (Chinese) acupuncturists and medical (or Western-style) acupuncturists:

Traditional acupuncturists view health in very general terms. That is, they do not use Western categories of disease. Therefore, they use acupuncture not for treating specific medical conditions, but for restoring the individual’s balance of energy, which is believed to pave the way for the body to heal itself. For example, traditional acupuncturists typically do not claim that acupuncture cures cancer, but they might use it to help patients with cancer to better cope with their disease.

While traditional acupuncturists do not necessarily need previous medical training, medical acupuncturists are usually medically trained (e.g., doctors, physiotherapists). That is, they use acupuncture alongside conventional medical treatment. Hence, medical acupuncturists tend to use acupuncture to treat a specific condition that has already been identified by modern diagnostic methods. Also, medical acupuncture is looking for modern scientific explanations for how acupuncture works.

Conditions Treated with Acupuncture

There is plenty of evidence from patient’s experience of acupuncture to suggest that it works for certain conditions. For some people, it has even worked better than medical treatments for specific conditions. However, acupuncture has not been shown to be any better than a placebo treatment for smoking secession or weight loss. The jury is still out over whether acupuncture has any therapeutic effects for many of the conditions that it is regularly used for. Hundreds of controlled clinical trials of acupuncture have been published in the past decades. According to their findings, acupuncture has been proven to be an effective treatment for the following medical problems or their symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Asthma
  • Back pain
  • Biliary colic
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Constipation
  • Dental pain
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Dizziness
  • Facial pain
  • Hay fever
  • High blood pressure
  • Induction of labor
  • Insomnia
  • Knee pain
  • Lack of energy
  • Migraine headaches
  • Morning sickness
  • Musculoskeletal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting after surgery
  • Neck pain
  • Post-operative recovery
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Sciatica
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Sprains
  • Tennis elbow

Other health problems frequently treated with acupuncture include acne, alcoholism, cardiovascular conditions, diabetes, emotional problems, ear, nose and throat conditions, female infertility, fibromyalgia, gynecological problems, herpes zoster, labor pain, neurological and respiratory conditions, osteoarthritis, polycystic ovary syndrome, pruritus, renal colic, skin problems, stiff neck, ulcerative colitis and urinary retention.

Potential Risks and Complications of Acupuncture

As it was mentioned above, acupuncture, though not entirely free of risks, is generally safe in the hands of well-trained acupuncturist. However, treatment is fairly often linked with mild and short-term side effects including pain during needling, minor bleeding or bruising at the site of needling, nausea, vomiting, fainting, or temporarily making the symptoms (e.g., pain) worse. Rarely, acupuncture has been linked with more severe side effects such as infections (e.g., hepatitis) introduced by non-sterile acupuncture needles, increased depression, asthma attacks, or damage to organs beneath an acupoint. However, most of these complications can be avoided through adequate training and responsible behaviour of the therapists.

Acupuncture should not be used for patients with severe bleeding disorders and women in early pregnancy (except for treating morning sickness). In addition, electro-acupuncture should not be used to treat those who have an implanted cardiac pacemaker. After a treatment session patients may feel drowsy and, therefore, should not drive a car until they are completely back to normal. Patients should also tell their other physicians that they plan to have acupuncture whereas the acupuncturist needs to know about any medication they are taking as it could influence response to the acupuncture treatment.

During the treatment patients may feel heavy, relaxed or drowsy. Afterwards most people feel calm and relaxed. Some feel tired or drowsy for a few hours. Patients may also notice general changes in appetite, sleep patterns, emotions, or how often they need to use the toilet. However, these are regarded as signs that the acupuncture is working.

How Is Acupuncture Supposed to Work

In traditional Chinese medicine illness is seen as the result of an imbalance in the body’s energy called Qi (pronounced ‘chee’). Qi is thought to move through the body along twelve invisible channels called meridians. The theory is that Qi is made up of opposing energies known as Yin and Yang energies.

Everything in the universe (including the human body) can be seen as pairs of opposites. One half of the pair can be classed as Yang and the other half as Yin. For instance, Yang is heat and male, while Yin is cold and female. It is believed that ill health occurs when these energies get out of balance. Besides, pain is said to block the flow of Qi, while acupuncture is used to restore that flow.

There are several possible scientific explanations for how this phenomenon might work. One theory has it that acupuncture increases levels of endorphins in the brain. These neurotransmitters are the body’s own painkillers that also increase general feeling of well-being. This effect could explain why acupuncture so effectively reduces pain. According to another hypothesis, acupuncture affects the way nerve fibres conduct electrical impulses, which could also explain how acupuncture decreases our awareness of pain.

Treatment Methods

Most commonly, small needles are inserted into the skin at special sites known as acupoints. About one hundred acupoints are commonly used, though only a few will be used during a single session. Other techniques of stimulating acupuncture points include applying pressure, heat, electrical currents or laser light whereas massage or tapping can be used for children or those who are scared of needles. However, each method is believed to have slightly different effects. For instance, needles are thought to be the most direct line to the energy, while heat is believed to encourage smooth energy flow. The acupuncturist may use several techniques or may stick with just one. There is also one school of acupuncture that specialises in putting needles exclusively into the ear.

Needles are usually inserted to a depth of 3-5mm and may be removed after just a few seconds or left in place for 20 minutes or so. Patients may feel tingling or a dull ache when the needle is put in, but once it is in, little or no pain should be felt. Afterwards it is not unusual to have slight bruising where the needle has been.

Usually, between two and 40 needles are used, sometimes more. The needles are often inserted in parts of the body away from where the patient’s problem is. The acupuncturist may also use a treatment called moxa (or moxibustion) at the same time as needles. It involves burning an herb to warm acupoints. This medical practice should encourage the body’s energy to flow smoothly.

The First Visit to Acupuncturist

When seeing a traditional acupuncturist for the first time, the patient may be asked about a range of things including their symptoms, medical history, diet or sleep patterns. The acupuncturist may feel the patient’s pulse and may look at their tongue. These are traditional Chinese methods of evaluating the general state of health. Patients should avoid things that might colour their tongue (e.g., coffee, blackberry juice) before they see the acupuncturist for the first time and they should not eat a big meal immediately before treatment. In contrast, seeing a medical acupuncturist will be very similar to seeing a general practitioner because diagnosis is made on conventional criteria.

How Many Treatments Are Needed

There are no generally established rules as to how many acupuncture sessions are needed to treat a certain condition. Some people respond better and some respond worse. In most cases, six to ten sessions will be initially recommended, while such a course of treatments might need repeating if symptoms come back. Everything depends on the type of health problem a patient suffers from and the improvement that is being achieved with acupuncture.

Where to Get More Information: American Academy of Medical Acupuncture