Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine used to treat chronic pain, increase your energy, and reduce stress. During treatment, thin, flexible needles are placed into specific points in your body.
Qi (or Chi), also known as the “life force”, is the basic concept in acupuncture. It is believed to flow through the body in channels known as meridians. Therefore, illness is explained as a block in the flow of energy.
Headaches, face pain, back pain, and a number of other disorders have responded well to this treatment. Current views of anatomy differ from the ancient meridian system devised over 2000 years ago. Yet, acupuncture continues to be a popular therapy that can be used alongside more modern treatments offered in a pain management office.
The concept of Qi and meridians
Acupuncture is based on a belief that energy flows through 14 body channels (meridians). Meridians connect to each other. They also connect to organs such as the lung, liver, and heart. Treatment points (acupoints) are found everywhere in your body and may be far from the area of pain. They are sometimes compared to airline travel routes: they exist on a map but cannot be seen.
Illness and pain block in your meridians and cause a stagnation of Qi and blood. Thin needles placed through your skin to target specific energy points, can unblock the meridians and return the flow of Qi.
A blend of Eastern and Western views
Both Eastern and Western scientists have tried to explain acupuncture in terms of recent medical findings.
Some possible explanations:
- There may be more mast cells at the point where needles are placed. These are a type of white blood cell that activates nerves and affects the way you feel pain.
- Acupoints may be trigger points (tender points in your muscles).
- Needle placement may act on your nerves and tissues. As a result, there is a release of chemicals that fight pain.
Acupuncture may be used to reduce your symptoms in several chronic conditions. Furthermore, it may also improve your body’s defense against disease.
- Low back/neck pain due to osteoarthritis
- Muscle pain
- Facial pain
- Spastic colon
- Nausea and vomiting after surgery or chemotherapy
Types of acupuncture
- Manual acupuncture (MA) – a needle is placed into certain points in your body and is twisted up and down. As a result, nerves that link the outer areas of your body to your spinal cord and brain, are stimulated.
- Electroacupuncture (EA) – a special needle delivers electrical current. Because this excites your nerves it also produces pain relief.
- Laser acupuncture – uses laser light instead of needles. It can be used for the treatment of muscle pain, nausea and vomiting after surgery, and chronic tension headache.
Is it safe?
When your treatment follows safety standards, there are few complications. However, problems may arise from the use of non-sterile needles and incorrect needle placement.
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) views acupuncture needles as medical devices that should be sterile and thrown away after a single use.
- You should only receive treatment from a licensed therapist. Needle placement can cause punctured organs, collapsed lungs, or nerve injuries, when not delivered properly.
- For cancer, your acupuncture sessions should be used in combination with other treatments.
Are you a candidate?
To see if you are a good candidate for acupuncture, consult your primary care or pain management doctor. It is important that you first have a clear diagnosis for your pain so severe illnesses can be ruled out.
You may not be a good candidate if you:
- Suffer from a bleeding disorder or are taking blood thinners.
- Have a pacemaker – acupuncture that involves applying mild electrical pulses to the needles can interfere with your device.
- Are pregnant – some types of acupuncture are thought to trigger labor, which could result in a premature delivery.
Your therapist will determine the best treatment for you. He or she will first ask you about the quality of your pain and how it affects your lifestyle.
An initial visit will involve an exam of:
- All parts of your body that are painful.
- Your tongue shape, coating and color.
- The color of your face.
- The strength, rhythm and quality of your pulse.
While an initial exam and treatment may take up to 60 minutes, later visits take about a half-hour. A common treatment plan involves one or two sessions a week. Usually, you receive six to eight treatments.
- First, your therapist places 5-20 thin needles into specific points on your body.
- You may feel a mild ache when a needle reaches the correct depth.
- Then, your therapist may move the needles or apply heat or mild electrical pulses to the needles.
- Needles remain in place for 10 to 20 minutes.
- Finally, they are removed – this does not cause any pain.
While acupuncture has been effective as the sole treatment, it can work well in combination with other treatments.
Some studies show that simulated treatment (touching with a needle but not placing it past the skin) appears to work just as well as real acupuncture. Therefore, acupuncture may work best for people who expect it to work.
Acupuncture is now provided by many hospitals and pain clinics. Since it has few side effects, it is worth trying alongside other therapies offered by your pain specialist.
At National Spine and Pain Centers, we are committed to helping you find a solution for your pain. Dr. Alok Gopal specializes in acupuncture for chronic pain management. Make an appointment today with Dr. Gopal in our Winchester or Martinsburg, Virginia locations.