Acupuncture: What is it? What can it do for you?
Acupuncture, also known as Chinese medicine, has seen a surge in interest over the past few years; riding the wave of the natural health boom. I am constantly being asked about it - what it is, how it works, and what its good for (You do acupuncture? I hear that will make me loose weight, is that true?”). I will try to give the “Reader’s Digest” version of acupuncture, and relate what I find it most useful for.
Acupuncture is a centuries old medical practice. Just how old it is has recently come into question. Previously, it was believed that acupuncture arose about 2500 years ago in China, coming out of the philosophical practices of the time (Taoism). However, a number of years ago, an “iceman” was found in the Italian Alps who had markings on his body that were placed exactly over major acupuncture points. Investigation of his skeleton revealed that he had low back degeneration (and thus maybe pain) and most of the markings were over points that today would be used to treat back pain! What is most remarkable about this is that he dates to about 5000 years ago - and he was in Europe! This, obviously, calls in question the idea that acupuncture arose in China. It also implies that the practice and knowledge of acupuncture is much more ancient than we thought. Think about how much western medicine has changed over the last hundred years. Now imagine a system of medicine that has gone virtually unchanged for over 5000 years. Logic would tell us that there MUST be a high degree of truth and efficacy to a system like that. That system is acupuncture.
Acupuncture operates on the premiss that the body has not only a physical aspect, but an energetic one as well. In acupuncture theory, the body contains 14 different energetic channels, or pathways of energy. (There are more, but these are the main ones). Most channels are associated with a particular organ, such as the liver or kidney, while others do not have a western correlate. Thus, when we discuss a “liver problem” in acupuncture, we mean: the physical liver, the energetic channel associated with the liver, the energetic and physical processes that the liver is responsible for, the emotional states associated with the liver (each organ is associated with emotional states), and the balance, or imbalance, of the liver in relation to the other organs. In acupuncture, each organ has a place and function in the body and each organ supports, and is supported by, other organs. In this way, the whole body is interconnected. Disease is seen as imbalances within or between these organs. This imbalance produces symptoms and correcting these imbalances will make symptoms go away. This brings up a major difference between acupuncture and western medicine.
In western medicine, for the most part, drugs are given to suppress whatever symptoms you may have. If you have a cough - take a cough suppressant; if you have acid reflux - take an acid blocker. This will relieve the symptom, but what about the cause of the symptom? And what about the patient who has a multitude of symptoms - say headaches, constipation and PMS. Western medicine views these as separate issues - each requiring their own drugs to treat. In acupuncture, though, the diagnosis is made after considering the totality of a patient’s symptoms and then deducing the underlying issue that is causing the imbalance. This is known as the root and branch approach. The “branches” are the symptoms and the cause of those symptoms, the underlying imbalance that created those symptoms is the root. A good acupuncturist will address both of these simultaneously - treating the symptoms to bring relief, and treating the root to bring about permanent change. In the example above, the headaches, constipation and PMS can all be due to a certain liver imbalance, and treating the liver should relieve those symptoms, but maybe the liver was allowed to get out of balance because it was being properly supported by the kidneys, and so the kidneys will need to be treated also, being the root cause.
So how does acupuncture work? Acupuncture involves the application of very thin needles to specific points known as acupuncture points. These points, for the most part, lie along the channels mentioned above. Each point has a specific function and action. We use the needles to activate the points we want so that they will “do their work”. Certain points strengthen different organs while other points help calm organs and still others may have more of a local action (using points around the shoulder to treat shoulder pain). Sometimes, points can be far away from the area that they treat, but we can understand this by remembering that they are connected to those places by the energetic channels. Some of the best points to treat headache are actually on the feet. In general, acupuncture will attempt to correct whatever organ imbalances may exist and restore harmony to the body. Sometimes this may take a while. Acupuncture is rarely a “one shot deal”. Usually, you need to give it at least 4-6 sessions before you can say for sure if it is going to help or not, although results may come after only one or two sessions.
So what is it good for? There have been many, many studies done at this point looking how well acupuncture can treat this or that. Its important to remember that this was the only form of medicine for a billion people for thousands of years, and so it can treat literally anything. However, it does seem to be more effective at some things than others. The following list are some conditions that I see good and consistent results with:
• Headaches - all types, especially tension and migraine; exceptionally effective
This is only a short list - I could go on and on. If you are not getting the results that you are looking for with another form of medicine, or think that doctors can not truly understand your problem, think about trying some acupuncture. The worst that will happen is that it won’t work. If you have specific questions as to how acupuncture may be able to help you or someone you know, please call me at my office and I will be happy to speak with you.