What is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture stimulates the central nervous system—the brain and spinal cord. Most people report a tingling sensation, feeling relaxed or even energized. People experience acupuncture differently, and rarely do they describe it as 'painful'. Unlike needles used for injections, the tip of an acupuncture needle comes smoothly to a point, instead of by way of a sharp edge. In the US, only sterile, one-time use needles (that are sealed prior to use) are allowed. After use, the acupuncture needles must be disposed in a proper hazardous waste receptacle. Acupuncture needles are also extremely thin—about 20 times thinner than a typical hypodermic needle used for injections. The acupuncture needles are solid and do not remove tissue as would occur with a hypodermic needle, making them safer. Acupuncture also has a cupping component to it, whereby cups are heated and applied to the skin to create suction and bring blood close to the surface.
Acupuncture is thought to operate by:
- Release of opioid peptides. Opioids are naturally occurring chemicals in the brain that have an analgesic effect. The release of these opioids plays a significant role in the reduction of pain. There has been considerable evidence to support that acupuncture stimulates the central nervous system, releasing these chemicals.
- Alteration in the secretion of neurotransmitters and neurohormones. Acupuncture is said to activate the hypothalamus and pituitary gland and thereby alter secretion of these chemicals. These particular chemicals play a direct role in the sensation of pain as well as the activity of an organ or organs. Evidence has shown that acupuncture alters this secretion in a manner that reduces pain. Documentation has also shown that acupuncture positively affects immune functions in the body.
- Stimulation of electromagnetic points on the body. The 2,000 points of the body that acupuncture focuses on are theorized to be strategic conductors of electromagnetic signals. Stimulation of these areas is believed to start the flow of endorphins—the body's natural painkillers.
Two main philosophical approaches are usually recognised. Traditional Chinese medical concepts describe illness and disease as a disturbance of qi (a form of energy or ‘vital force’) within the body. Qi is said to flow along fourteen meridians on the body surface on which the acupuncture points are situated (rather like stations on the lines of the New York subway map). Acupuncture aims to re-establish the correct flow of qi throughout the meridians. Diagnosis may include detailed examination of the pulse and tongue. Needle placement is individualised, so each patient will receive a different number and distribution of needles. This is often combined with dietary advice and Chinese herbal treatment.
Western medical acupuncture is a modern scientific approach which is based on the biological effects of needling and on clinical and laboratory research. Acupuncture has been found to have effects on the nervous system, including locally where the needles are placed, in the spinal cord and brainstem, where a ‘damping effect’ occurs on pain transmission, and in areas of the brain which regulate the emotional aspects of pain. This may explain beneficial effects from ‘distant’ acupuncture points of traditional practice. Western medical acupuncture uses both local points (for instance on the head and neck) and distant points (such as hands and feet). A related approach is ‘trigger point’ acupuncture, in which tender points in muscles are needled to release muscle spasm contributing to the condition, for example in the neck and scalp.
Some define the benefits of acupuncture within the realm of traditional Chinese theories such as qi (chee) and meridians. Others understand and attribute acupuncture's benefits to certain scientific and biological changes they bring about in the body. Either way you view acupuncture is fine because the pain relief outcome is the same! Acupuncture is a tried and proven method of relieving pain and ailments with little to no adverse side effects.