What is Acupuncture? How Does it Work?

What is Acupuncture?

Many people have questions about acupuncture—what it feels like, how it works, and what to expect in a treatment.  Below are answers to some of these general questions.

First off, I think it is important to acknowledge that every practitioner of acupuncture is slightly different in how they practice. Acupuncture has been practiced as a form of medicine for over 2500 years, and over time different perspectives and theories have developed. Each perspective has its validity at the appropriate time and place; they can be likened to lenses through which we can view the patient and their primary imbalances. Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine is like any medicine or art—the hands that practice it inherently influence the way in which it is practiced. Below I will give some general information on acupuncture, but keep in mind that these are our perspective at Clear Stream and they might differ from other clinics and practitioners.

What does acupuncture feel like?

Some individuals have fear or anxiety when they think of having needles inserted in their body. This may be due, in part, to associations created from having blood drawn as well as vaccinations and shots throughout our lives.  In these procedures, larger, hollow-tip needles are used which can sometimes cause pain. This is very different from acupuncture needles, which are not hollow-tipped, and can be as thin as a human hair.

There are many different sensations that can be experienced when the needles are inserted and retained. You may feel an ache or soreness, a warmth, a distending or full sensation at the site of insertion, a “zing” that comes and goes, or a spreading sensation. All of these are considered to be therapeutic sensations, indicating that the points and channels are active and your body is starting to shift. However, if it is ever too strong, sharp, or uncomfortable, then it is important to let your practitioner know, even if it is one of the therapeutic sensations.
To me, one of the most important aspects of a treatment is that you are able to relax as completely as possible. The more you are able to relax and release any tension in your body, the more effective the acupuncture treatment can be. Therefore, if you experience anything that brings lasting tension into your body, this is too strong of stimulation, even if you can “bear it”, and it is important to say something. This communication between patient and practitioner is vital in any healing relationship.

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How acupuncture works
To understand how acupuncture functions to assist each individual in healing, we need to understand some of the fundamental theory and philosophy upon which Chinese medicine is based.  A lot of this is metaphorical, providing a beautiful way in which to visualize humanity and our place in the cosmos.  To the ancient Chinese, humans are seen as the “Middle Kingdom”, between Heaven above and Earth below. You have probably heard of Yin and Yang; in this view Heaven corresponds to Yang and Earth corresponds to Yin. Yang qi, or Yang energy, flows down from Heaven and into the Earth, and Yin qi flows from up from Earth to Heaven, thus keeping Heaven and Earth constantly connected, as part of one universal whole. Everything that exists at the level of humanity, including humans themselves, becomes conduits for this energetic flow between Heaven and Earth. Indeed, the Chinese believe that it is this flow that gives rise to all that is present at this level.

In one of the earliest known texts on Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, it is stated that “Happiness is when the Qi flows freely through the body.” This may be interpreted as meaning that as long as this flow between Heaven and Earth is smooth, we have a nearly unlimited capacity to heal, to be healthy and happy, and to live fulfilled lives full of awareness. How is this so? We all have meridians, or channels, that run through our body and act as conduits for this constant flow of qi. The yang meridians start at the fingertips, carrying yang qi from Heaven above to the head and body and eventually down to the toes and the Earth. The yin meridians start at the toes, carrying yin qi from Earth up to the body and eventually out the fingertips and up to Heaven. If this flow of qi is unobstructed, it can carry out any excesses and fill any deficiencies, thus allowing the body’s natural capacity to heal to be at its fullest.

When the qi flows freely through the body, there are no blockages and one feels relaxed and present. Through diagnosing which meridians and organs may have potential blockages, we can then use acupuncture to stimulate those meridians and organs to return to the natural state. For this reason, many people find acupuncture to be extremely relaxing; some will even fall asleep while the needles are in. This is often an excellent sign, for when a person reaches the state between sleeping and waking, there is a systemic relaxation that occurs, thus allowing the needles to be even more effective. If you are still extremely relaxed or even “spacey” after the treatment, it is a good idea to sit for a few minutes and simply be present with what you are experiencing. Sometimes you may even want to go home and take a nap after a treatment, which is an excellent idea if you have the schedule flexibility. Other times people will feel extremely energized and awake after a treatment; if this is the case it is also excellent, but be careful not to push yourself too much—especially if you were treated for any form of physical pain or injury. It is very easy to overdo-it and re-injure the affected body part within the first 24 hours of treatment if you push yourself too hard.

Pulse and Tongue Diagnosis
When you come in for a session, I will ask to see your tongue and to feel your pulse. The pulse and tongue are both commonly used diagnostic methods within Oriental medicine. Both are seen as “microcosms”, or small reflections of your entire body, as well as any imbalances within your body. Thus they can be used to assess the state of your internal organs and meridians, as well as the overall flow of qi and blood throughout your body.
When examining the tongue, we are looking at the color, size, and shape of the tongue body, as well as the thickness, consistency, and color of the tongue coating, among other things. The front third of the tongue corresponds to the Heart and Lungs, the middle third corresponds to the Stomach, Spleen/Pancreas, and the Liver and Gall Bladder, and the back third corresponds to the Kidneys and Bladder. For example, redness in an area of the tongue usually corresponds to heat in that organ. Thus, if the tip of the tongue is slightly redder than the rest of the tongue, this would likely indicate heat in the Heart, and I might inquire about your sleep patterns (insomnia, vivid dreams, etc), tendencies toward anxiety, heart palpitations, etc, all of which might be related to manifestations of heat in the Heart from the Chinese medicine perspective.

When feeling the pulse, we are primarily feeling for three different positions along the radial artery at each wrist. We are not examining only the pulse rate (beats per minute), although that is also taken into consideration. Instead we are primarily feeling for the quality of the blood as it flows through the vessels, as well as the texture and shape of the blood vessels themselves. All of these factors convey different information, not only about the state of the circulatory system but also the state of the internal organs and acupuncture meridians. For example, if there is a lot of tension in the wall of the blood vessel itself, such that it feels like a tight wire (rather than supple and flexible), this is likely an indication of stress and tension either throughout the body as a whole or in a particular organ, depending on which positions of the pulse have this quality.

Besides examining the tongue and pulse, your practitioner will also ask you many questions relating to all aspects of your health, well beyond what you are coming in for. These questions serve as a means to gauge the overall state of health, as well as to further understand the underlying causes for any presenting illness or imbalance. For example, you might wonder why your practitioner asks about any Kidney or Bladder issues when you come in for low back pain. According to Chinese medicine, the low back is governed by the Kidneys, and the Urinary Bladder channel also traverses the low back and sacrum. Thus, when a person has low back pain, sometimes it is related to an underlying imbalance or weakness in these organs. Kidney or Bladder issues may serve to confirm this or to differentiate between possible patterns. This allows the treatment to be more focused, and oftentimes more effective.

Treatment schedule
Acupuncture and Oriental medicine are not designed to be a magic bullet. There are many times when a single acupuncture treatment may be all that is required, especially if you are coming in for an acute (recent) injury or illness. However, for more chronic, severe, and long-term conditions, multiple treatments will often be necessary. In such cases, I often recommend that patients come in 2-3 times/week for 2-3 weeks, and then start spacing out the treatment periods after that—often going to once/week for several weeks, and then slowly increasing the interval between treatments. When you receive several treatments close together at the beginning, there is a synergistic effect that allows the body to shift and adapt more quickly. However, if we do not see a significant shift within 2-4 treatments, I will often refer you out to other practitioners and modalities.

In China, it is common for individuals to receive acupuncture 5 times/week, several weeks in a row, for severe and chronic issues such as stroke recovery, bulging/herniated discs and sciatica, insomnia, and other issues. However, there it is integrated in the hospital setting; in the United States at this point it is less feasible for patients to come in that often given financial and scheduling issues. However, we can often see similar strong results when patients come 2-3 times/week at the start.

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What does acupuncture treat?

Acupuncture can be effective as the only treatment used, or as the support or adjunct to other medial treatment forms in many medical, emotional and mental disorders including:

  • Neurological and Muscular Disorders: Headaches, Facial Tics, Neck Pain, Rib Pain, Frozen Shoulder, Tennis Elbow, Tendonitis, Back pain, Sciatica, Sports Injuries, Osteoarthritis, Nerve Pain, Arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis, and Fibromyalgia.
  • Urinary problems: Incontinence, Urinary Tract Infections, and Frequent Urination.
  • Menstrual and Reproductive Issues: PMS, Irregular or Painful Menstruation, Male and Female Infertility, and Menopausal Symptoms.
  • Digestive Disorders: Acid Reflux, Stomach/Intestinal Pain, IBS, Chron's, Colitis, Constipation, Diarrhea, and Nausea.
  • Emotional Conditions: Stress, Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Addictions, Mental Disorders, and Low Energy/Drive.
  • Sleep Disorders: Insomnia, Not waking rested, Excessive or Disturbing Dreams.
  • Immune and Autoimmune Disorders: Immune Deficiency, Lupus, Hepatitis, HIV.
  • Acute and Chronic Illness: Colds, Flu, Infections, and Viral or Bacterial Illness.
  • Respiratory Disorders: Sinus Problems, Asthma, Sore Throat, Bronchitis, and Recurrent Chest Infections.

For more information on acupuncture, see our Resources Page

To find out what acpuncture can do for you, or to schedule an appointment contact us.

This page was written and compiled with the assistance of an amazing acupuncturist and writer in Colorado and South Dakota, Thomas Richardson. You can find out more about Thomas and his work at http://www.extraordinarychinesemedicine.com/

 Phone: (978)494-4864                E-mail:  info@clearstreammedicine.com              501(c)(3) EIN 45-4338056                     © Spencer Ames 2014