What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is the insertion of tiny filliform needles (flexible, thin, solid) needles into precise locations on the body to produce a healing, regulatory, or pain-relieving effect. A traditional practice for thousands of years throughout Asia, modern acupuncture has come a long way from it's original practice: Early acupuncturists used coarse needles made of bone or even stones. The modern acupuncturist uses sterile, disposable needles made of stainless steel and may employ such innovations as electrical stimulation or lasers to stimulate the acupuncture points. Acupuncture may be ancient, but it's also adaptable, technologically up-to-date and sophisticated.
How does acupuncture work?
No one knows. Alright, I'm joking. No one knows how the ancient Chinese discovered that inserting needles into a special place on your foot could make your headache go away. But we do have a pretty good understanding of how acupuncture treatment affects the body physiologically, thanks to numerous animal studies, and things like functional MRIs which show precisely which regions of the brain are stimulated by certain acupuncture points. Acupuncture relieves pain by reducing local inflammation, increasing circulation, increasing feel-good chemicals like endorphins, and re-setting the brain's proprioception and nociception. For internal diseases, acupuncture stimulates the immune system, improves gut motility, regulates hormones, and calms the nervous system.
Do I have to believe it will work?
No! Of course, a positive expectation helps the efficacy of any treatment, even surgery, however acupuncture (like surgery) also works on animals. Numerous laboratory studies bear this out. You can also ask one of the thousands of people who take their arthritic pets for acupuncture treatment each year! The physiological effects of acupuncture are real.
Does acupuncture hurt?
Acupuncture, when administered by an experienced licensed acupuncturist is not painful. We use special techniques to insert needles quickly and gently with minimal sensation. Most of the time, the needling is not even felt. There may be a heavy, buzzy, magnetic or moving type sensation at the site of needle insertion once the needle is inserted, but this sensation is usually just strange and not painful. Most patients find treatment itself deeply relaxing and even look forward to their treatments.
Where do you put the needles?
Sometimes we put the needles in acupuncture points located near the painful or diseased area. Other times we needle areas along the same meridian or channel that connects with that area. There are many different schools of acupuncture, and the system of diagnosis and point selection can become almost infinitely complex. In most systems there are hundreds of therapeutic points to choose from. Among these there are a "Top 5", a "Top 10", and maybe even a "Top 40" of acupuncture points. These have not changed much over time, and differ little between different acupuncture systems or schools. Interestingly, the most commonly used points are areas of maximum differentiation during embryonic development. It stands to reason that such precise points might remain areas of high import even in the adult body. When the effects of these areas are studied with modern imaging techniques, we learn that some increase blood flow to the pelvic area, regulate gut motility, stimulate production of white blood cells, and so on. For most practitioners, the goal is to get as potent an effect with as few needles as possible.
What kind of training do acupuncturists have?
A licensed acupuncturist will have over 3,000 hours of trainging in both western and eastern medicine, and close to 1,000 hours of clinical training in acupuncture needling techniques and practice. The exact requirements vary from state to state, but there is a national certification board that ensures some consistency throughout the country. Other types of practitioners may use acupuncture needles for therapies like chiropractic acupuncture, medical acupuncture and dry-needling. All of these therapies may be helpful for certain conditions. But by far, a licensed acupuncturist will have the most training and experience in acupuncture treatment.
What's the difference between dry needling and acupuncture?
Dry needling is a type of acupuncture. Primarily performed by physical therapists who have undergone some (usually 20 to 50 hours ) additional training to insert needles. Dry needlers use acupuncture needles to release trigger points in tight or painful muscles and tendons. DN treats musculo-skeletal issues and some types of pain, whereas acupuncture treats a broad variety of disease and pain conditions. The needles used in DN tend to be a heavier guage (thicker), and the needling techniques less gentle than those used by an acupuncturist. There are some very skilled practitioners doing dry needling with great results, but you are more likely to get the results and have less painful treatments with someone exclusively trained in acupuncture.
What are meridians or channels?
"Meridian" is the original term used for certain pathways in the body when acupuncture was first introduced to the west. I prefer the term "channel", as it is more accurate and descriptive of the anatomy we are discussing. Acupuncture channels are pathways that extend from the hands, head, and feet to the internal organs of the body. These pathways are not to be confused with nerves or bloodvessels, although the channels do tend to correspond with the pathways and branches of major blood vessels. The channels are located in the fasciae, or connective tissue around your muscles, tendons, and bones. This tissue is fluid filled and rich in collagen, which has special conductive properties under the right conditions. Needling of points along these channels can alter patterns of blood flow, release tight muscles, and up-regulate or down-regulate nerve impulses to and from the area.