Acupuncture is a form of treatment that involves inserting very fine needles through a person’s skin at specific points on the body at varying depths. Research indicates that it can help relieve pain and it is used for a number of other conditions. Indeed, there is evidence of its effectiveness in areas other than pain. The mode of action of acupuncture remains scientifically uncertain. Some people claim it works by balancing vital energy, while others believe it has a neurological effect. Acupuncture remains controversial among Western physicians and scientists.
What is acupuncture ?
Acupuncture involves inserting needles into certain areas of the body.
An acupuncturist will insert needles into a person’s body in an attempt to balance their energy. This, it is said, can help increase well-being and cure certain diseases. The conditions for which it is used include different types of pain, such as headaches and blood pressure problems among others.
How does it work?
Traditional Chinese Medicine explains that health is the result of a harmonious balance of the complementary extremes of ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ of the life force known as ‘qi’, pronounced ‘chi’. Illness is said to be the consequence of an imbalance of forces. Qi is said to flow through the meridians, or pathways, in the human body. These meridians and energy flows are accessible through 350 acupuncture points in the body. Inserting needles into these points with appropriate combinations is believed to bring the flow of energy back into proper balance.
There is no scientific proof of the existence of meridians or acupuncture points. It is also difficult to prove that they exist or not. Some experts have used neuroscience to explain acupuncture. Acupuncture points are considered places where nerves, muscles and connective tissue can be stimulated. The stimulation increases blood circulation, while triggering the activity of the body’s natural painkillers.
It is difficult to set up investigations using appropriate scientific controls, due to the nature of acupuncture. In a clinical study, a control group should undergo a sham treatment, or a placebo, for the results to be compared to those of real acupuncture.
However, the scientific literature attests that acupuncture can help in cases of:
– low back pain
– neck pain
– knee pain
– headaches and migraines
The applications of acupuncture validated by the WHO
In 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) listed a number of conditions in which acupuncture has been shown to be effective.
These include in particular
– hypertension and hypotension
– Nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy
– certain gastric conditions, including peptic ulcer disease
– painful periods
– allergic rhinitis
– facial pain
– morning sickness
– rheumatoid arthritis
– tennis elbow
– dental pain
– reduce the risk of stroke
Other conditions for which the WHO says acupuncture may help but more evidence is needed include
– post-operative recovery
– addiction to substances, tobacco and alcohol
– pain in the spine
– neck stiffness
– whooping cough, or pertussis
– Tourette syndrome
The WHO also suggests it may help treat a number of infections, including certain urinary tract infections and epidemic hemorrhagic fever.
She stresses, however, that “only national health authorities can determine the diseases, symptoms and conditions for which acupuncture treatment may be recommended.”
Benefits of acupuncture
Acupuncture can be beneficial in this regard:
Done correctly, it is safe.
There are very few side effects.
It can be effectively combined with other treatments.
Help control certain types of pain.
It can help patients for whom pain medication is not suitable.
What to expect during an acupuncture session?
According to traditional Chinese medical theory, acupuncture points are located on meridians, through which vital energy passes. This energy is known as “qi” or “chi”. An acupuncturist examines the patient and assesses their condition, inserts one or more thin, sterile needles, and gives advice on self-care or other complementary therapies, such as Chinese herbs.
The patient will be asked to lie on their back, front, or side, depending on where the needles will be inserted. The acupuncturist must use sterile, single-use and disposable needles. As each needle is inserted, the patient may feel a very brief tingling or tingling sensation.
After inserting the needle, there is sometimes a dull ache at the base of the needle which then subsides. Acupuncture is generally relatively painless. Sometimes the needles are heated or stimulated with electricity after insertion. The needles stay in place for 5 to 30 minutes.
The number of treatments needed depends on each person. A person with a chronic disease may need one or two treatments per week for several months. An acute problem normally improves after 8 to 12 sessions.
Chmielnicki, B. (2003). Evidence-based acupuncture WHO official position
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White, A. (2009, February 7). Does acupuncture relieve pain? [Editorial]. The BMJ