As I was growing up, my father (like many people before and since) suffered occasionally from back pain. One time, he sought out acupuncture as a treatment. We were young, and my younger brother jokingly told my father not to drink water afterwards, as we had seen numerous cartoons of characters being poked by nails, needles and other implements and then having water come out of the body while drinking.

Of course we–even at a young age–knew that this did not happen in real life and my father did, in fact, have improvement in his condition afterwards.

Acupuncture is an “alternative” (in the Western hemisphere) medicine and which is generally accepted to have originated in ancient China, perhaps as much as 5,000 to 8,000 years ago. It was virtually unknown in the United States before President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.

Starting in 2009, U.S. physicians deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan used “Battlefield Acupuncture” to significantly reduce the pain felt after surgery. Now, the implements–the needles–are regulated in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration which also regulates the implements–scalpels and syringes–used by Western medicine.

It has been effectively used in a wide variety of ailments such as cancer (especially the nausea and vomiting as a result of chemotherapy), stroke, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), addictions, infertility, asthma, allergies (including hay fever and eczema), fatigue, insomnia, digestive disorders (including irritable bowel syndrome), tinnitus, smoking cessation, sinus problems, immune disorders, and even depression and anxiety.

It is commonly–and pertinently to this article–used for pain including persistent lower back pain, headaches and migraines, chronic pain, joint pain, dental pain, post-operative pain, menstrual cramps, osteoarthritis, tennis elbow, sports injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, shingles and other forms of pain.

It may not be recommended as a sole means of treating broken bones (which seems to be the purview of Western medicine). However, acupuncture does help to prevent osteoarthritis in which–barring accidents–your bones will not break. Also, it can help to speed up bone repair and to reduce swelling and inflammation.

If you have any of the following, then it may be suggested that you do not have an acupuncture treatment: a current drug or alcohol intoxication; a seizure disorder; a bleeding disorder (such as hemophilia of the usage of blood thinners); an infectious skin disorder or disease; or the use of a pacemaker. If you are pregnant than any placement of needles in the abdominal area ought to be avoided. The placement of needles that are placed in other areas thought to result in an early delivery of the fetus or even in its abortion should similarly be avoided.

The procedure

Consultation Before anything can be done, the acupuncturist will conduct an interview to determine your health needs and the supposed state of balance of your energy. You will be asked about your symptoms, sleep patterns and appetite and the acupuncturist will examine your complexion, hair, nails, tongue and other features.

Sterilization In the United States, only sterile, disposable needles are used. However, acupuncture itself allows for reusable needles, and reusable needles may be used in other countries. When and where reusable needles are used, they are sterilized, usually by an autoclave.

The points where the needles will be inserted on the patient’s body will also be cleaned, using rubbing alcohol or other antiseptic.

Insertion The patient will lie down face-down, face-up or on the side depending upon the location of the points of insertion.

The needles are inserted into the skin, usually by means of a plastic guide tube, and are done so by spinning, flicking or moving them up and down, depending upon the practitioner’s preference. Since pain can be felt in the outer layers of the skin, the needles ought to be inserted quickly to minimize any pain. A skillful practitioner can insert needles without causing any pain.

The needles may be heated or stimulated with electricity after they have been properly placed. Especially because of this, many patients report sensations in the area where the needles have been inserted. Even if no sensations are felt, beneficial results usually occur soon after. An herb may burned near the skin. This technique is called moxibustion.

Generally, 4 to 10 needles are used during a treatment, and these are left in place for 10 to 30 minutes. This is a very restful and relaxing time, and many patients fall asleep during this time.

Removal The needles are simply removed. Afterwards, calmness remains for awhile. In the United States, and other places that use disposable needles, the needles will be put in a sealed, unbreakable container with the signage of “Hazardous Waste” and disposed of according to the prevailing laws, rules and regulations. For proper treatment of the pain or ailment, there are generally 6 to 12 sessions over a 3 month period.

But what is acupuncture? The idea behind it is that it is a technique for restoring the flow of energy or life force (called qi or chi) which is believed to follow paths (called meridians) in your body. The insertion of the needles at specific points in these meridians are believed to restore your energy flow and to remove the ailment. The goal is to increase the qi in the areas where it is lacking, and to decrease the qi in the areas where there is an excess.

The body is viewed as a microcosm of nature, and interrelated and integral to it. Nature is viewed as being harmonious when it is in balance and so to is the human body viewed. Pain and illnesses are viewed as being imbalances. Acupuncture takes a holistic view of the human body. In this regard, it is very similar to Ayurveda, the discussion of which may warrant another article.

The needles themselves are usually made of stainless steel and are extremely thin. They are from 0.16mm to 0.46mm (0.006” to 0.018”) in diameter, with the thicker needles being used on more corpulent patients. Their lengths are from 13mm to 130mm (0.51” to 5.12”) with the shorter ones being used near the face and eyes and the longer ones where there is more thick muscle or skin.

How it works?

From a Western medicine point of view, acupuncture is thought to work in a variety of ways.

1) The release of opioid peptides. These are naturally occurring chemicals in the brain and which help to minimize pain. There have been many studies done which show acupuncture stimulates the central nervous system which, in turn releases these chemicals.

2) Activation of the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland. The studies also report that such chemicals that are secreted from here are altered in such a way that pain is reduced, and that the immune system is also increased.

3) Stimulation of electromagnetism. Acupuncture focuses on 2,000 points in the body. These are theorized to be areas that conduct electromagnetism, which is believed to enhance the flow of endorphins, the body’s well-known natural painkiller.

 Advantages

The advantages of acupuncture are that it is extremely safe when performed correctly; has very few or no side effects; extremely effective when used with other treatments; commonly used for many types of pain; and a very good alternative to pain medications (especially with those who do not respond well to such medicines); and is very cost-effective (especially in this time of the Affordable Care Act in the United States).

For those who are concerned about needles or potential pain from the needles, there is a technique and instruments called laser acupuncture. This method is often used on children and infants

Disadvantages

Possible disadvantages and risks can be if you have a bleeding disorder or are taking blood thinners (in which case acupuncture is considered to be dangerous to employ), and there can be bleeding, bruising or soreness at the places of insertion.

Very rare risks include a needle breaking and then damaging an internal organ, and if the needle is inserted deeply into the chest or upper back then a collapsed lung could result. In theory, the needles may be unsterilized and this could infect the patient.

In the United States and other places, the needles are disposable and come pre-packaged. In places that reuse the needles, they are sterilized using an autoclave. If you see any evidence that the needle is neither disposable nor sterilized then simply go to another acupuncturist who can allay your fears for your needed treatment.

There is some evidence that acupuncture does not have a cause and effect, and that it may work on some people but not for others. What can you do? Keep an open mind. After all, it is an alternative (in Western society) medicine. Moreover, even in Western medicine and science, there is something called the Placebo Effect in which if you simply believe that something will work then it often does work.

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Martin Nance
Hello, I am Martin Nance. I have recently retired after a lifetime of working as a pharmacist. I now live with my wife in Texas. In my 37 years of helping people manage medications and health, I know the meaningful impact a trusted pharmacist can bring to people's lives. I still love helping people and hope to provide information that can protect and help people in need.