What is acupuncture?
Simply put, acupuncture is a form of medicine. It is used to treat many types of conditions with the use of very fine needles that are placed in very specific locations. An acupuncturists studies the art and practice of acupuncture and Oriental medicine (also known as Chinese medicine or Traditional Chinese Medicine) between 2 and 5 years. Here in Texas, an acupuncturist studies the whole body of Traditional Chinese Medicine for 3000 hours (between 4-5 years).
What exactly is Traditional Chinese Medicine?
One way to understand Traditional Chinese Medicine (otherwise referred to as TCM) is by looking at a writer in the movie industry. When he is telling his story, he will use different elements of action, drama, comedy, pacing, and so forth. He could write with a lot of one element and little of another. The end product will differ depending on the amounts of each elements used, but each product will still be a movie.
TCM, consists of different elements of practice, a person certified in Oriental Medicine is qualified to treat patients with the use of acupuncture, herbology, dietary therapy, qi gong, or chinese medical massage. They can use all of the elements or they may chose to specialize in one or two. The end result will be similar: a person is diagnosed according to certain principles and then is treated by either administering acupuncture, dispensing herbal supplements, or instructing the person in how to eat in order to get well.
TCM is composed of 5 different sets of practices: acupuncture, herbal pharmacology, dietary therapy, chinese medical massage (also known as tui na), and qi gong. One can specialize in one of these forms of medicine, or can have a broad scope of practice that encompasses all of these. Each is used to help bring balance to the body, but each has a different strengths in achieving it.
How does it work?
There are two very important elements that help acupuncture to work as effective as it does. One is in the diagnosis. And the second is in the treatment.
The diagnosis is achieved by taking into consideration a patient’s signs and symptoms. Signs are things that can be seen or felt, for example: a person’s breath, the color of the whites of someone’s eyes, how loud or quiet one’s voice is, or bruises on the skin. Symptoms are things that need to be described and are not validated by sight, hearing, smell, or sense of touch. Examples of symptoms are: being nauseated, having a headache, sore arms or legs, and feeling hot but not running a temperature. The difference is that signs can have an objective observer whereas symptoms are felt by the patient only.
A detailed intake of the patient’s health history, dietary habits, stress management, lifestyle are all taken into account usually at the first treatment in addition to questions revolving around signs and symptoms. These questions are asked in order to get a bigger picture of the person rather than just focusing on the patient’s condition.
TCM is an entirely different way of approaching healing a person. It uses elements of nature to describe conditions such as heat, cold, wind, damp, fire, excess, deficiency.
Let me break it down a little bit more (but not extensively, this will give you an idea):
Heat- we attribute a condition to heat when there are heat signs: you can have diarrhea that burns, you can have eyes that burn, you can have a feelings of heat in your palms and soles at night. These are all conditions that are attributed to heat.
Cold- we say a condition is cold related when the body feels cold to the touch (it could be anywhere, depending on the condition), when there are cold sensations in the back or knees, when the lips are blue, when you feel chills.
Wind- wind is attributed to conditions that move. If you have ever had pain that one day was in your chest, the next day it was in your abdomen, another time it was in your hips- that is pain that has wind attributed to it. Parkinson’s is another condition that is attributed to wind because the body moves as if wind were blowing it around.
Damp- damp is a condition that is associated with feeling sluggish, waking up groggy, being overweight, and having edema.
Fire- fire is a condition not seen often as it is an acute condition and rather serious. It has similar signs and symptoms as heat, but to a greater extent.
Excess- excess is a term when things are not balanced, but of an excess. You can have excess heat and excess cold. When you have excess dampness, you are more than likely either obese or morbidly obese and you everything you do takes a lot of energy because of how weighed down you are.
Deficiency- deficiency is seen when there is not enough of something. You could have deficiency qi, deficiency yang, deficiency yin. Each kind of deficiency has it’s own specific symptoms so when you come in and you have feelings of thirst and get hot sensations in your hands and feet at night, you don’t have enough yin so you are deficient in yin.
So, depending on your signs and symptoms will depend on your diagnosis, which is why the headache you have may not be the same as the headache your mom is having. Once you have a diagnosis, the treatment follows. It is important to know acupuncture is not a quick fix. Just like you go for your routine chiropractor’s adjustments, getting treatment with an acupuncturist usually is between two to three times a week for around four weeks –this number varies depending on the severity of the condition and how quickly you respond. Once you have reached a level that your condition has stabilized, you go into the maintenance phase, where you get treatments less often as a way to keep the condition from returning and keep your body at a healthy place.
People talk about meridians and qi, yin, yang, what are they?
Meridians, qi, yin, and yang are all elements of TCM. You do not have to understand any of this to be able to benefit from the treatments.
Meridians: Imagine, if you will, rivers with specified paths circulating throughout the body. The paths of the rivers do not change. To be more specific, these are rivers of energy, as science has not been able to find these pathways on an autopsied body, yet, when using the right tools, you can measure higher levels of energy (frequency) coming out of designated pathways and acupuncture points.
Meridians function at their best when they have high quality force of energy circulating throughout and when there are no blockages.
Meridians are paired with a specific organ. If the organ is not functioning at its best, it can very likely cause a detrimental effect on the meridian. When the meridian is blocked, different things that can happen are pain, numbness, or tingling.
Qi: If you are familiar with Star Wars, qi can be likened to, “the force”. It is life in the body. Similarly, there are different kinds of qi. There is qi that is produced by the body from the air we breathe and the food we eat; there is the qi that comes from our genes (prenatal qi) it is why some people have a lot more energy naturally and others have less. That being said, it is quite possible to change the cards we have been dealt, meaning if you were born to have more strength than most people, you can ruin that by eating poorly, having too much stress, and intoxicating your body on a regular basis. On the other hand, if you were born more fragile than most people, with a little determination, hard work, right lifestyle, and right diet with time you can be as strong as the next person.
Each organ has its own specific qi that it produces. The heart has heart qi, the lungs have lung qi, the spleen has spleen qi and so on. The qi is specific to its function. Just as qi is energetic, a function depends on energy to drive it.
Without qi, there is no life. When qi is moving freely, everything is fine. If qi is weak or deficient, than the corresponding organ is not functioning at its best. For example, if you have weak lung qi, you may have a hard time breathing or you may get sick easily (the lungs are the first line of defense between us and airborne diseases); if you have weak spleen qi (spleen in TCM is paired with the stomach to guide our digestion) than your appetite may be poor, you may get full without eating too much, or you may be lethargic (because you are not getting the proper nutrients from your food).
Yin and yang: You can gain an understanding for one by learning about the other. Just as you can gain insight about light when it pierces through the darkness.
Yin and yang are represented by this symbol
You have the white- which is represented by yang, and the dark- which is represented by yin.
Certain things in nature are more yin, others are more yang. It’s important to understand that there is nothing that is absolute yang or absolute yin found in nature, which is why the yin yang symbol is always represented with an opposite colored dot within the yin and yang symbols.
It’s important to remember that in nature, you don’t have one without the other. The sun doesn’t send out it’s light if it doesn’t have a body to create it. And even in physics, a rock has a vibration to it.
How long has acupuncture been practiced?
The number differs depending on who you are asking, but acupuncture and Oriental medicine have been practiced from 2,500-4,000 years ago. These forms of medicine have been studied, tested, researched, and perfected in their own ways. ‘Modern’ Chinese medicine is about 500 years old. What we bring to the table today is a standard of cleanliness and sterility to the practice in addition to studying how exactly acupuncture effects the brain and body’s functioning.
Does acupuncture work by placebo effect?
It is easy to think that acupuncture works because people believe in it. However, when acupuncture performed on animals, it yields very positive results thereby showing the effectiveness of acupuncture.
American studies have not yet been able to be formed in a way that honors acupuncture the way that it is practiced. Meaning, they key to a successful treatment is in the diagnosis. If seven people come in with an ulcer, even though they get prescribed the same medication by a doctor, you can have seven different diagnoses in TCM. Why is that? This is because we, as acupuncturists, take into account several factors (to name just a few): is your ulcer aggravated after you eat; does food help the ulcer feel better after a time; do you notice that it’s worse with stress; is your ulcer worse in the afternoon or evening?
By asking these questions, we are finding the root of the problem. By treating the root, the disease will gradually lessen.
In Germany, they have devised a triple blind type study that honors the technique of diagnoses in TCM, compares the traditional Chinese medical diagnosis with a diagnosis that comes from very little education (in China, these people are barefoot doctors, in America some M.D.’s and some chiropractors practice with this type of acupuncture practice) and that with points that are both random and in specific places that will not influence the treatment.
With this triple blind study, a person comes in with a specific condition, they are diagnosed by the doctor who looks at his reference and finds with each diagnosis comes a series of points that are color coded (for example) yellow is the color for this particular diagnosis, green is the color for the less educated diagnosis, and blue is the color that consists of unimportant points. This physician then leaves with those three colors as the choice. The next person to come in- the needle administrator- is given a random choice of one of those colors, they then administer the needles. A third person will come in at the end of the session, remove the needles and then ask how the treatment felt. By administering acupuncture in this type of testing field, one can see just how effective acupuncture is, and how much it differs from the less educated set of points. Even though the less educated points are not as effective as the traditional set of points, they are still better than the placebo group of points.
Is there a way I can get treated without needles?
Depending on the condition will depend on which form of treatment will work the best. Acupuncture, herbs, Chinese medical massage, qi gong (energy work), and Chinese dietary therapy are all different ways to achieve results that are similar. Each practice has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Can you briefly explain a little bit about Chinese pharmacology, Chinese medical massage, qi gong, and Chinese dietary therapy?
Chinese pharmacology focuses on administering herbs for a condition. There is a set number of about 360 herbs that consist of plants, minerals, sometimes animals that are studied extensively in addition to over 100 classic formulas (consisting of more than 2 herbs combined for a specific purpose)
Chinese medical massage uses techniques involving hands, fingers, sometimes forearms and elbows to help relax muscles and open meridians. Generally it is used after an acupuncture treatment.
Qi gong is a form of creating energy with specific movements combined with breath. There are some people who study medical qi gong extensively because of how powerful it can be.
Chinese dietary therapy uses food as medicine. Eating specific foods and eliminating other foods help to bring about health of the body. There are many conditions that dietary therapy is very useful, especially when used in conjunction with acupuncture or herbal therapy.
How does an acupuncturist diagnose my condition?
An acupuncturist will diagnose your condition based on the signs and symptoms you present. This is why if you come in with period pains, you may have a different diagnosis than your best friend who also has period pains. For more information, see the question how does it work for more information on how an acupuncturist reaches a diagnosis.
What does a typical acupuncture session look like?
Before you begin your first session, you will need to fill out paperwork that is standard with any type of medical treatment. This consists of your health history but also takes into account your emotional state, your dietary habits.
After your paperwork has been filled out, you will have a detailed intake taken that is in addition to the paperwork you filled out. The acupuncturist is looking for things you may not be able know on your own like how loud or quiet your voice is or how you respond to touch. One part of getting the bigger picture involves palpation (touching), the acupuncturist may feel different areas of your body to get an idea of tenderness, nodules, painful sensations… You may be asked questions that seem very personal such as the quality of your bowel movements or the consistency of your periods- this is all very normal and is very helpful in acquiring a diagnosis to your condition. Usually at the end of the intake you will be asked to stick out and show your tongue. The tongue reveals valuable information as to the health of the interior of the body. And your pulse will be taken- also an important means for diagnosing your condition. After the intake is finished, you will get comfortable (sometimes this means taking off your belt or loosening your pants), you will most probably be asked to take your shoes off and perhaps your socks. You will then get on the table- either on your front side, back side, or perhaps you may lie on your side. The acupuncturist will make sure you are comfortable, then will go clean their hands.
Inserting the needles usually does not take very long after which you will then stay on the table so that you will have a chance to rest. Part of what helps the needles to work is that you are not being stimulated and that you are not moving your body around. So, the needles are placed in particular places and they tell the body what needs to be done in order to help your condition. Depending on the clinic and the practitioner, you may be left with a device to call them with (at Head to Sole Therapeutic Acupuncture Clinic, you are left with a simple bell that you can ring if you need anything and for your initial few visits, you will be checked on to see if everything is ok unless otherwise stated). At the end of the session (the time that you are left with needles can range anywhere between 15-45 minutes, this time depends on various factors that you may discuss with your practitioner beforehand) the practitioner will come and remove the needles. You will then have a chance to move around and see how you feel. Common feelings are numbness, tiredness, relaxation, tingling, heaviness, feelings as if the needles are still in. If there are any questions or comments, please let your practitioner know. The healing process is two-fold: one is your deciding to get well and taking charge of the process; two is your practitioner working with you to educate you on the best way to get well and guiding you there.
Most commonly, there will be a series of treatments suggested on your path to wellness. Your acupuncturist will give you a general guideline on how many treatments you may need and at how many intervals (for example: a suggested program will be 2 times a week for 3 weeks with a re-evaluation at the end of the 3 weeks). The suggested program will give you the best results so it is important that you are committed to following through.
How often do I need to get treated?
This number really depends. It depends on your age, fitness level, health, diet, extent of your condition, length you’ve had your condition and the amount of conditions you have. For some people, all they need is two treatments and they’re ‘fixed’ for a year. For others, they may receive 4 or 5 treatments, but don’t follow through with the suggested amount of sessions and they end up with the same problem again.
A general rule of thumb is to see how you respond after a few treatments. After the initial series of appointments you will review with your acupuncturist how you feel and at what level you are still experiencing issues. This will give the acupuncturist an idea about how many more sessions you will need to finish your treatment.
Also, treatment comes in phases. The first phase is primary phase. Primary phase you bring the problem to very miniscule levels. For example, if you come in for back pain on a scale of 8/10, you get the pain the go down to a consistent 1 or 2/10. In the acute phase, you probably will be getting sessions more frequently.
The secondary phase is maintaining and even improving the condition to where it is either barely noticeable or inexistent. At this point the treatments are spaced out.
In the third phase, otherwise known as maintenance phase, you come in every month or even longer to keep your body in stable condition.
Every case is different, so every recommendation for treatment is different. Rule of thumb is to work with your acupuncturist. When you start taking your health to your own guidance, it can cause problems down the road if your guidance is not what your licensed acupuncturist recommends.
Does it hurt?
At Head to Sole Therapeutic Acupuncture Clinic, great care is used to purchase the finest quality needles. They are FDA approved and are branded to be on the ‘quest to painless’. One way to describe getting acupuncture is like getting a hair plucked or a slight pinch. Many times, you may not even realize a needle has been put in. One thing to understand is that we don’t come in contact with needles this thin in our day to day lives. A sewing needle is much thicker than an acupuncture needle. A safety pin is twice as thick as a sewing needle. And the needles that so many of us are accustomed to fear, 10 acupuncture needles can fit into the hole of one of those standard needles.
One way to conquer a fear of needles is to get a trial acupuncture treatment. Trial acupuncture treatments generally consist of two needles inserted shallowly into the ear. With just two needles, you can begin to feel relaxation come over your body and can also feel what it’s like to get a mini acupuncture treatment.
A trial acupuncture treatment at River Oaks Wellness Center lasts 20 minutes, uses two needles, and costs $20.
What happens after the needles are put in me?
After the needles are inserted into the acupuncture points, the acupuncturist will leave you in the room. The first few sessions, you will be checked on regularly to make sure everything is OK. Once you are comfortable with resting without disruption, or if you feel confident you can call for someone if you need something than you will be left alone to rest anywhere between 20 and 40 minutes depending on your condition.
Sometimes, it is a good idea to have some time after your treatment that you can relax or rest even more. For most people, they are able to continue on with their daily activities. Everybody is different, and sometimes, our bodies way of communicating to us what it needs is by the overwhelming need to rest.
Is there anything in the needles?
At River Oaks Wellness, we would tell you, “ABSOLUTELY NOT!”.
Be rest assured, you will get brand new, sterile needles every time you come in.
How do I know to which acupuncturist to go to?
It’s important to make the right choice, and choosing your healthcare practitioner can be a very personal thing. Many acupuncturists offer free consultations. This way, you can come in, meet the acupuncturist and ask them any questions you may have. If the acupuncturist doesn’t offer a free consultation, you can call and either talk to them over the phone or ask their secretary any questions you may have. Depending on what you are looking for will help you decide when you find it.
It’s important that your acupuncturist is licensed in the State that you are receiving acupuncture in. If you ever feel uneasy, it is within your right to check with your State’s Medical Board to see if they are current.
Also, acupuncturists need to be certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. You can easily find their record by going through the site: NCCAOM.ORG and go to “FIND A PRACTITIONER”
What conditions can acupuncture treat?
Basically acupuncture can treat many diseases and conditions that relate to soft tissue, organs, muscles, and certain nervous disorders.
The practice of acupuncture has been under many studies by many different organizations and has come out with high, medium, and low rank recommendations depending on the condition with various rankings in quality of evidence
You will find a comprehensive list at the World Health Organization and National Guidelines Clearinghouse websites regarding what these two major organizations recommend with acupuncture.