More people are becoming familiar with acupuncture. Although it used to be a treatment that was practiced only in Eastern Asia, it's become an available treatment in the United States for conditions such as: pain, nausea and vomiting, stomach problems, headaches, and more.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a type of East Asian Medicine that some people have found helpful to relieve certain kinds of pain and treat certain medical conditions. The name of the professional who does the acupuncture treatments is an "acupuncturist".
Most states require that acupuncturists have three to four years of special training in acupuncture studies. To be licensed they must pass a national exam.
How does acupuncture work?
During an acupuncture treatment, fine needles (as fine as a piece of hair) are inserted into "acupuncture points," which are thought to stimulate the body's nervous system to release certain chemicals in the muscles, spinal cord, and brain, which in turn release other chemicals and hormones in the body that may help to improve pain and other medical complaints.
Although the way that acupuncture works is not yet fully understood by scientists, medical studies have shown that acupuncture is safe, and, when combined with other treatments, can be helpful for some patients with certain conditions.
During treatment the acupuncturist focuses on the imbalance of three forces, Qi, Yin and Yang, and the Five Elements. Most people who practice East Asian Medicine believe that energy (or Qi) flows through channels in the body called meridians. They believe that certain medical conditions result from a blockage or imbalance in the natural flow of these energy channels, and that acupuncture can help in unblocking Qi. Yin and yang, two opposing, but complementary forces, have their balance analyzed. The Five Elements, a third central part of diagnosis, are wood, water, fire, earth, and metal. Each organ (part of the human body) is assigned one of these five elements. The acupuncturist evaluates how these elements and organs interact with one another. All three of these complex ideas are assessed, and acupuncture is then used accordingly to restore balance to the body.
What happens when you go to an acupuncturist?
Your first visit with an acupuncturist is similar to the first visit with your health care provider. Your acupuncturist will ask you questions about the reason that brought you in for acupuncture treatments. If you are having pain, he/she will probably ask specific questions such as: Where is the pain? What does it feel like? and How often do you have it? Your acupuncturist will also ask you about other conditions you might have, if you've had any operations, and if you're taking any medications or herbs.
Two of the ways acupuncturists try to understand what's in balance and what's not is by looking at the color, shape, and coating on your tongue, and by checking your pulse in 6 different positions. This helps the acupuncturist decide what areas of your body need help and which acupuncture points might be stimulated.
What happens next?
Your acupuncturist will probably ask you to put on a gown or have you roll up your pants or shirt. You will be given a sheet or blanket to cover the parts of your body that don't need to be exposed. Next, you'll be asked to lie down on a foam covered table so he/she can place the very fine needles into the acupuncture points on certain areas of your body, such as your belly, legs, hands, etc. Typically, between 5 and 20 needles are used per treatment. Your acupuncturist may play music to help you relax.
What do the needles look like?
Acupuncture needles are very small and thin. If you look at a piece of your hair, that's just about the thickness of a needle. Only the tip of the acupuncture needle is inserted into the skin.
Where are the needles inserted?
Acupuncture is different from western medicine since acupuncture points represent different places along the "energy channel." So, it is possible that your acupuncturist may decide to place needles in different areas of your body. It may seem odd to have needles placed in your legs if you are having stomach pain.
Do the needles hurt?
Some people become worried when they hear the word "needle". This is understandable, but the needles that are used for acupuncture don't look anything like the needles that are used for vaccines or blood tests. Acupuncture needles are very, very thin and small.
Some people who receive acupuncture feel a little bit of pressure when the needle is inserted, some will feel mild pain and others will feel nothing at all. Once the needles are in the acupuncture points you should not feel any discomfort at all. Many patients even fall asleep during their treatments.
Am I at risk for getting an infection from having acupuncture?
Usually not, because the needles used by a licensed acupuncturist are sterile. There is, however, a very low risk of bruising where the needles have been inserted, but the risk is much lower than if you were to have a regular type of injection.
What are the pros and cons of acupuncture treatments?
Pros (benefits) of acupuncture are:
- It may provide relief from pain, nausea, or other symptoms
- It usually causes no side effects
- You may feel relaxed after an acupuncture treatment
Cons of acupuncture are:
- Sometimes the symptoms that brought you to the acupuncturist may get worse for a few days before they start to get better
- You may feel sleepy after a treatment
- The treatment may cause temporary changes in your appetite, sleep, bowel, or urination habits
- As with any medical treatment, not everyone will have improvement in their symptoms after acupuncture
How many treatments will I need to have?
This can vary. The reason you are having treatments, including whether your problem is acute or chronic, and whether you have more than one condition, will help determine how many treatments might help. Generally acute problems get better after only a couple of treatments, but chronic conditions may require 1-2 visits per week (or more) for many months. Your acupuncturist will work with you to decide how many treatments you feel you need.
Can I take medicine or have other medical care while I'm having acupuncture treatments?
Yes. It's important to take any medicine that your health care provider prescribes for you. It's also very important to tell both your health care provider and acupuncturist what medicines you are taking so they can help you get the most out of the treatments.
Will my insurance cover the acupuncture treatments?
Some insurance companies do cover acupuncture treatments while others do not. The American Academy of Medical Acupuncture is working with insurance companies to try to have acupuncture treatments covered by all insurance companies. For now it is best to check with your insurance company to find out if all or part of your acupuncture treatment will be covered.
If you're thinking about acupuncture, here's a tip on how to bring it up with your provider: "Would acupuncture help my problem?".