How Does Acupuncture Work?

Author: Dr. Jeda Boughton, B.A., R.Ac., Dr. TCM, FABORM – Boda Health

At BodaHealth, we’ve found that prospective, new and current patients often have questions about acupuncture and Chinese medicine. We’ve also found that many people who are considering acupuncture are super-interested in knowing a little more about what it is and what’s involved. Below is a collection of some of the most asked questions we receive about acupuncture.

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a system of healing that originated in China over 2,000 years ago. It involves the insertion of fine needles into various points in the body to produce a healing response. The theory behind acupuncture—and all of Chinese medicine—is that energy is crucial to optimal health. Also called Qi (pronounced chee), this energy is responsible for your metabolism, circulation, digestion, hormone production and every other system and physiological action necessary for life. In the simplest of terms, when you become ill or have symptoms, it’s either because your energy has become depleted, or it has become blocked somehow. For example, depletion can look like fatigue, sluggish metabolism, anemia or shortness of breath. In contrast, pain, a sinus infection, a bruise, blood clots or a pinched nerve are all examples of an energetic blockage. Acupuncture treatments are designed to build up your energy, release a blockage and sometimes do both.

How does acupuncture work?

A great deal of research exists on the physiological changes that occur in your body as a result of acupuncture. Over the past 60 years, scientists have discovered that acupuncture triggers a cascade of biochemical reactions in your body that promote healing and relieve pain. It ramps up the circulation of pain-relieving neurotransmitters in your body, helps to balance both stress and reproductive hormones, stimulates relaxation in tight muscles, boosts immunity, reduces inflammation, promotes motility in your gut and stimulates the branch of your nervous system responsible for rest, relaxation and digestion.

What does acupuncture treat?

In addition to research on how acupuncture affects your body, hundreds of clinical studies have documented that acupuncture can effectively treat a wide variety of health conditions. Some of the most commonly treated conditions include musculoskeletal pain, such as back, neck and knee pain; migraines and headaches; nausea; anxiety; depression; infertility, hormone imbalances and sleep issues. Acupuncture is also an effective treatment for menopause symptoms, reproductive issues, tendonitis, smoking cessation and digestive problems.

What’s involved in an acupuncture treatment?

When you come to BodaHealth for your first acupuncture visit, your practitioner will talk with you about your health history and current symptoms. They will also feel your pulse, look at your tongue and may even palpate (touch) your abdomen and any areas of concern. At each additional treatment, your practitioner will also check your progress, but it will not take as long. Once the treatment begins, you will lie on a massage-type table, either face up or face down, depending on the nature of your treatment. Your clothes may remain on, but will be adjusted to accommodate the treatment. If more access is necessary, you will be provided with sheets, a blanket and may be given a gown. Your practitioner will then place needles in selected acupuncture points, and you’ll be left to relax with the needles in place for 20 to 30 minutes. After that time, your practitioner will come in and remove the needles. It’s important to know that at BodaHealth we used disposable needles—used needles go directly into a sharps container for disposal and are never used again. If your practitioner is providing any other therapies, this will be done at that time; otherwise your treatment is over.

Do you get immediate relief from acupuncture?

Some patients feel the effects of acupuncture after only one treatment. Many report a decrease in their pain, sleeping better, improved energy and feeling less stress. However, chronic conditions, fertility issues and conditions that have left you run down or depleted may take longer to see or feel changes.

How many acupuncture sessions does it take to see results?

While you may feel the results of the acupuncture after a single treatment, how long it takes for acupuncture to work is different for every patient. The number of treatments that you’ll need depends on the nature of your condition and how long you’ve had it. Your practitioner has experience in treating conditions similar to yours and can give you an idea of how many treatments may be needed at your first appointment.

How can you tell if acupuncture is working?

Acupuncture is focused on helping your body heal itself, so sometimes the early results can be subtle. An early sign that acupuncture is working is noticing a change in your symptoms. For example, if you’re having acupuncture for pain relief, you may notice that the nature of your pain has changed (now achy instead of stabbing, for example) or the pain is still felt, but in a different place. Other early signs that the acupuncture is working is having more energy, improved sleep, feeling the effects of stress less and an improved mood.

How long do the effects of acupuncture last?

When you first begin to have acupuncture treatments, the results of those early treatments last for a few days. As treatments continue, the results last longer and longer, but how long the benefits of acupuncture last is different for every patient. For example, for a patient who becomes pregnant and has a healthy baby through fertility acupuncture, the benefits are obviously long-lasting. But if you’re having acupuncture for pain or stress, you may need maintenance treatments from time to time after your initial course of treatment.

How often should you get acupuncture?

Acupuncture treatments are cumulative, with results building over time. For that reason, your practitioner will likely recommend more frequent treatments at the beginning, and space them out more as time goes on. A good guide for patients who are in an acute phase, 1-3 treatments a week is a good place to start, and then spread out the treatments as the condition improves. For fertility patients, treatments are commonly recommended once or twice a week for three to six months.

Is it okay to do acupuncture two days in a row?

Many people want to know if you can have too much acupuncture, and the answer is no. When I was doing my practicum in China, we saw patients every day for 12 days in a row. In fact, while there’s no problem with having too much acupuncture, not having enough acupuncture treatments, or not having them frequently enough can cause acupuncture to take much longer than necessary to be effective.

Does acupuncture hurt?

Every patient experiences acupuncture differently, and there are several different techniques of needling. In general, most people don’t describe acupuncture as painful. One reason is that the needles used in acupuncture aren’t hollow, so a very fine gauge can be used. In addition, an insertion tube is often used, in which the needle is encased in a hollow plastic tube. The tube is placed against your skin and the needle is gently and quickly tapped into place, often painlessly. Once the needle is in place, you may feel a sensation of tightening, or your tissue “grabbing” the needle. This sensation is called deqi, which means Qi has arrived to that point. It’s also important to know that if you don’t want to be needled, there are alternatives. Under the umbrella of Chinese medicine, there are a number of therapies that don’t used needles, such as acupressure, cupping, heat therapy, cold laser therapy, herbal medicine, gua sha and Chinese massage called Tui Na.

How do acupuncturists know where to put the needles?

Your acupuncturist has spent years studying the insertion location, depth and function of almost 400 acupuncture points. They choose points based on your specific diagnosis, the organs or pathways involved in your condition, the specific action of each point, the location of your symptoms, effective combinations of points and the preference of your practitioner. In addition, the style of acupuncture your practitioner uses will guide their choice of points.

Can I have acupuncture while I’m under a doctor’s care?

Yes! In fact a number of physicians and fertility clinics refer their patients to BodaHealth for acupuncture in Vancouver. We’re happy to share information and updates with your doctor with your permission, of course!

If you have more questions about acupuncture or how acupuncture or Chinese medicine can help your specific health condition, please contact us. We’d love to hear from you!

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