Acupuncture is a medical procedure that involves the insertion of very fine needles into the skin and muscles. I recommended that you wear loose fitting clothes or a bring bathing suit to a treatment. It is also recommended that you go to the washroom previous to your appointment. I do not recommended being under the influence of any recreational substance or alcohol, otherwise you will very likely feel nausea during the treatment. I have seen several people vomit after coming to a treatment even slightly altered by drugs or alcohol.
It is perfectly natural for anyone to be apprehensive about receiving an acupuncture treatment, or more literally being poked with about a dozen needles and then be asked to lay still and relax into the experience. Keep in mind that this is a treatment that has been practiced for thousands of years and is now available in every country in the world. In my experience, the profound benefits of acupuncture are well worth the few moments of mild discomfort that occasionally happen during an acupuncture treatment. I would not continue to offer this as my primary approach to health care if I could find a more beneficial and effective therapeutic approach for my patients.
What is Acupuncture Like?
A typical Acupuncture treatment begins with a review of your health and a detailed exploration of your present symptoms. Once your acupuncturist has determined the kind of treatment that is necessary, you will usually remove some of your clothing and lie down on a massage table and get as comfortable as possible. Your acupuncturist will then clean each point to be needled with a cotton ball soaked with isopropyl alcohol ensuring that there is no risk of infection.
As the needle goes through your skin you may feel a little pinprick, but often you will not feel it at all. Once the needle is through your skin, your acupuncturist will guide it to the actual acupuncture point. When the needle touches the right spot you will feel a little “surprise”. I always ask my patients to tell me as soon as they feel the surprise to ensure that I do not over stimulate the point. Most often the surprise will be an involuntary muscle twitch. Sometimes a muscle will “grab” the needle instinctually and you will feel a dull pulling sensation for a few seconds. Quite often the needle will cause a mild tingling sensation that will travel along your body. Rarely, but sometimes importantly, you will feel an electrical current travel to the end of your arms or out of your feet. This has an important therapeutic value and your acupuncturist will usually let you know ahead of time that you might feel a lot of energy moving.
Once all of the needles are in and you no longer feel any of the surprises you will be given from 15 to 30 minutes to lay still and allow the influence of the needles to take effect. After that the needles will be carefully removed and, in most treatments, you will asked to turn over. The same procedure will take place and when you are comfortable you will be given more time to settle into the treatment. As you settle into the full effect of an acupuncture treatment you will likely experience a sense of ease and timelessness. Some people fall asleep and others have strong emotional releases; some have visionary dreams and others enjoy the opportunity for some self reflection. Quite often, when I open the door to a treatment room, my patient will need a moment to remember where they are.
Once the last needles are removed you will be given a few minutes to get dressed and come back into normal time. After a treatment it is recommended to find a quiet place and have a cup of tea or a bowl of soup. The pain relieving and stress reducing effects usually last for about three days after the initial treatment. The beneficial effect of acupuncture lasts longer and longer with regular treatments.
Is There any Risk of Infection or Injury?
Today, there is almost no possibility of infection. All modern acupuncture needles are for single use only. I have personally performed at least 20,000 treatments without any infection or injury. Modern acupuncture needles are made of surgical stainless steal so they cannot rust. The needles are packaged in a nitrogen gas environment so that no microorganisms or bacteria can live on them. Your acupuncturist will swab each point to be needled with isopropyl alcohol or other cleansing liquid that ensures that nothing on your skin gets a free ride into your body, again reducing any risk of infection.
Occasional small bruises may form at an insertion site. This happens when small capillaries are broken by the needle. This cannot be avoided because capillaries are not detectable through touch. In my experience I see a bruise form in approximately one treatment out of ten.
The one risk associated with acupuncture is called a pneumothorax. This is an injury to the pleural membrane that protects your lungs and separates them from your chest wall. This is a very uncommon injury because all licensed acupuncturists study anatomy and are trained to specifically avoid this from happening.
How Deep do the Needles Go?
This is the most common question that I receive from my patients. My answer is always “just deep enough”. Some of the nerve muscle junctions or acupuncture points are just under the skin and some are deeper, the average being about 1/4 inch below the skin. An example of a deep point would occur in a largely muscled football player who has sciatica. Sciatica occurs when a deep muscle in the hip joint presses on a nerve. In order to resolve this very painful condition the acupuncture needle has to trigger that deep muscle to relax. In a larger person this would require a six inch long needle. In each person, depending on their medical condition and the size and shape of their body, each needle needs to go just deep enough.
What About the Statistics?
Some medical research statistics suggest that acupuncture is not significantly effective and some research suggests that acupuncture is the most beneficial and least harmful treatment for many conditions. I would like to speak to the research that “proves” acupuncture is not an effective treatment. In modern research we use a standard called a double blind study. With respect to research on acupuncture this means that the patient and the practitioner are not allowed to have ever had acupuncture before or know anything about how it is actually works.
The practitioner is given locations of acupuncture points that may or may not be actual points, they insert the needles and see what happens. There is no communication between the practitioner and the patient.
There are two great flaws to this kind of research. First, the charts that show people where acupuncture points are a general guideline. The charts are meant to guide the practitioner to begin a physical investigation to find that point on that particular person. So the idea of real and false acupuncture points based on a rough drawing of the body is kind of irrelevant. Second, acupuncture requires constant communication between the patient and the practitioner. Both must agree that each needle is in the right place based on physical sensations and actual changes in nerve and muscle function.
Real acupuncture cannot be tested by a double blind study because it requires that two people subjectively agree that the treatment is having a tangible effect on the patient and their condition.
What Can Acupuncture Treat?
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends acupuncture for the following conditions.
- low back pain
- neck pain
- tennis elbow
- knee pain
- periarthritis of the shoulder
- facial pain (including craniomandibular disorders)
- dental pain
- tempromandibular (TMJ) dysfunction
- rheumatoid arthritis
- induction of labor
- correction of malposition of fetus (breech presentation)
- morning sickness
- nausea and vomiting
- postoperative pain
- essential hypertension
- primary hypotension
- renal colic
- adverse reactions to radiation or chemotherapy
- allergic rhinitis, including hay fever
- biliary colic
- depression (including depressive neurosis and depression following stroke)
- acute bacillary dysentery
- primary dysmenorrhea
- acute epigastralgia
- peptic ulcer
- acute and chronic gastritis
There are over 80 other conditions that are still being reviewed for acupuncture as an effective treatment.