By Roye Evans
Acupuncture, used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine, has become part of mainstream medicine. Today private clinics, hospitals, and doctor’s and dentist’s offices across the United States offer acupuncture as part of the integrative health care model. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), estimates that 36 percent of U.S. adults use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), of which acupuncture is the most popular.
Chinese medicine believes the body’s balance of two inseparable forces (yin, slow/passive, and yang, excited/active) creates health, while an imbalance of the two leads to disease and blocked “qi” (pronounced “chi”) or life force. In acupuncture, a trained practitioner inserts thin, solid, flexible needles the size of a human hair into specific points on the body to stimulate the body’s natural healing abilities and remove blocked “qi.”
An increasing body of research shows that the body’s response to acupuncture includes neurochemical changes that may be of benefit in easing chronic pain, particularly low back pain, neck pain, osteoarthritis pain, and fibromyalgia-related pain. Research also supports its positive effects on treating frequent tension or migraine headaches. And recent studies supported by the National Center for Complementary and Integrated Health include acupuncture’s role in overall pain management.
Know Before You Go
As with any CAM treatment option, knowledgeable and open communication with your primary care doctor and/or specialist is essential. If you are seeking acupuncture, speak with your physician and ask for a referral for a licensed practitioner.
Acupuncturists must be licensed, certified, and educated to practice. Visit the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine for a list of nationally certified practitioners, who must complete a minimum of four years of master’s-level training. Most states also have a separate licensing board and requirements for acupuncturists.
Ask about training, experience, and expertise. Some acupuncturists specialize in treating migraines, for example. You should seek out a practitioner with experience treating the issue you are experiencing. Also inquire about the estimated number of treatments and cost. Acupuncture may or may not be covered by your health insurance plan.
Considered a safe treatment, acupuncture has few complications and no real negative side effects if delivered by a certified practitioner using proper technique. Side effects may include soreness and minor bleeding or bruising, and the risk of infection is minimal due to the now-common use of single-use, disposable needles.
Acupuncture is not a replacement for medical diagnosis and conventional care. Truly an integrative option, complementing most medical treatment, acupuncture should be used with caution on patients with a bleeding disorder or those who are immune-compromised. If you have a pacemaker, avoid acupuncture with electrical stimulation.
What to Expect During Treatment
At your initial visit, the practitioner will conduct a conventional health survey as well as a Chinese-style history, which involves viewing the body’s systems through the Chinese lens. You may be asked about your sleep patterns and appetite and specifics about your pain’s location and characteristics. Additionally, the acupuncturist will examine your tongue for shape, coating, and color, and listen to your pulse.
Treatment visits typically are under 45 minutes. During treatment, you lie on a padded table or reclining chair and remain clothed or are draped in a sheet. The practitioner inserts up to 20 needles at various points across your body. Because of the small size and flexibility of the needles and superficial insertion, there is little discomfort other than an occasional mild and temporary pricking sensation.
The needles may or may not be gently twirled after placement, or, depending on your treatment needs, a mild electrical pulse may be applied. The practitioner should explain every step in advance. It’s important to communicate any concerns or discomfort you may be feeling. After you lie still and relax for 20 to 30 minutes with the needles inserted (treatment rooms are quiet and restful environments), the practitioner removes and disposes of the needles. Post-acupuncture, you may feel relaxed or energized.
Typically, several treatments are needed to begin to see benefits. Communicate with your acupuncturist and your doctor over the pre-determined course of treatment about how your body is (or isn’t) responding and about your pain levels.
An estimated 3 million adults in the U.S. have found improved health by integrating acupuncture into their lives. With clear communication, a commitment to well-being, and a licensed, certified professional acupuncturist, you may experience similar benefits.
Visit MAPMG’s Staying Healthy pages to find out more about acupuncture and its potential benefits.
Roye T. Evans, RN, MS, LAc, is a clinical acupuncturist with Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group. She sees patients at the Kaiser Permanente South Baltimore Alternative Medicine Center in Halethorpe, Maryland.