This post is the Coles Notes version of a fantastic article by Chris Kesser.
How does acupuncture work?
The most common explanation goes something like this:
“Disease is caused by disruptions to the flow of energy, or qi, in the body. Acupuncture stimulates points on or under the skin called acupuncture points or acupressure points, releasing this qi. The qi then travels through channels called meridians”
I used to blurt this out all the time when people asked me how acupuncture works. Most acupuncturists will deliver some version of the above explanation when queried because this is exactly what is taught in acupuncture schools in the West. What’s funny about this slightly woo woo explanation, is that Chinese medicine is not actually an energetic, metaphysical medicine.
The “qi” and “energy” description came from a French bank clerk named Georges Soulie de Morant, who looks like a pretty serious fellow (see photo) but had no experience in translating ancient Chinese nor any training in medicine. This somewhat mystical view of acupuncture is neither historically accurate nor consistent with our modern scientific understanding of the body.
Broadly speaking, acupuncture does three key things: relieves pain, reduces inflammation and restores homeostasis.
How does it do all of this?
Acupuncture promotes blood flow. This is super important because blood contains the oxygen, nutrients, immune substances, hormones, analgesics and anti-inflammatories the body needs in order to heal. For example: a decrease in blood flow by as little as 3% in the breast area can lead to breast cancer.
Acupuncture stimulates the body’s built-in healing mechanisms by creating ‘micro traumas’. These tiny traumas stimulate the body’s ability to heal tissue injuries through our nervous system, our immune system and our hormones. As the body heals the micro traumas, it also heals any surrounding tissue damage left over from old injuries, bing bang boom!
Acupuncture releases natural painkillers. When the needles get inserted, it signals the brain to release chemicals such as endorphins, norepinephrine and enkephalin, some of which are 10-200 times more potent than morphine!
Tense muscles? Acupuncture relaxes them, which in turn releases pressure on joint structures and nerves, and promotes blood flow.
Acupuncture reduces stress. This is huge! It does this by stimulating our parasympathetic “rest-and-digest” nervous system. Impaired parasympathetic function is involved in a wide range of autoimmune diseases, including arthritis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.
Take home message: acupuncture works by stimulating the peripheral nervous system. It heals us by relieving pain, reducing inflammation and restoring homeostasis. In other words, it brings our body back into balance and makes us feel good, and there ain’t nuthin’ wrong with that!
When people get acupuncture for the first time, they will often admit to being nervous about the needles. Which isn’t surprising, they’re probably imagining a hypodermic or a sewing needle, when in actual fact, an acupuncture needle is about the thickness of a cat whisker. It’s extremely flexible and when you look at one up close and maybe even flick it with your finger, its harmless nature is revealed.
Harmless but not powerless. Those little needles, placed just so, all working together can accomplish amazing things. They can ease pain, calm an anxious mind, increase circulation, decrease inflammation, stimulate a sluggish bowel or slow an overactive one, and on and on the list goes.
I’m hesitant to compare acupuncture and sewing for fear of fanning the flames of needle fear, but they have some beautiful similarities. A row of tiny stitches can heal the hole in the toe of your favourite sock and make it stronger just as a few acupuncture needles correctly placed can mend your body’s pain. In both, something tiny and precise can be used to strengthen a weak portion of the whole.
Similes are fun! Here is another one: acupuncture is like DJ’ing. Huh? Well, both use needles to create cohesion. A DJ will use the turntable needle to line up the next song and create a seamless transition (hopefully), melding the two together. Similarly, an acupuncturist uses their needles to establish consistency; regular acupuncture treatments over time can nudge the body into a new, more balanced pattern, one that is free of pain. Like two perfectly synced songs, pain dissolves into pain-free, almost without the patient even noticing.
And why would they notice? Acupuncture needles are silicone coated for patient comfort and are extremely delicate. Did you know that you can fit forty of these little guys inside the opening of a hypodermic needle? Forty! So that gives you some perspective on whether or not to be nervous about acupuncture.
Our advice: don’t fear the needle. And if you still do, even after reading this post, just sing that phrase to yourself a few times. Here is some back-up musical inspiration to help out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUO_5EALZoM
So many of our patients here at Stillpoint spend their nights tossing and turning. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if these people were napping to make up for the lost hours of sleep, but due to busy lifestyles, naps are not a priority for most.
But they should be! A brief mid-day slumber of 20-30 minutes can increase alertness and boost mood. Furthermore, naps can enhance performance and decrease the risk of mistakes and accidents. And they feel oh so good.
So what does all of this have to do with acupuncture?
The first thing you will notice when you set foot in the community treatment room at Stillpoint is people, reclined in chairs and dozing peacefully. They’re acu-napping! Not only are they getting treatment, but they are sneaking in a rejuvenating nap at the same time. Clever acu-nappers!
I can nap at home, why come in for an acu-nap?
A study conducted in 2004 at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto found that in patients with anxiety, acupuncture increased nighttime melatonin production and total sleep time. And the patients who received acupuncture also fell asleep faster, were less aroused at night and were less stressed overall. Boo ya acupuncture!
Here at Stillpoint we treat many patients with sleep issues. If their insomnia is a fairly recent occurrence, then usually only a short series of treatments is needed to reverse the trend. Chronic insomnia on the other hand, will take longer to correct. The treatment plan is always customized depending on each patient’s unique presentation. Even if someone has been struggling with sleep for a long time, it is still worth giving acupuncture a shot. It can’t do any harm and in most cases will infact improve sleep as well as overall health.
Everyone knows how bad it feels to be sleep deprived. We will tend to feel groggy, grumpy, out of sorts, nauseous, achy, confused… the list goes on. Our bodies need a certain amount of good quality sleep in order to function. It’s not surprising that sleep deprivation has been used as a means of interrogation and torture.
There is so much happening inside our bodies while we are sleeping. There are processes that help in the consolidation of memories and learning. There is hormonal production and regulation, which contribute to our appetite the following day.
You can think of sleep as a form of brainwashing–but the good kind! As you know, the cells in your body are constantly creating waste. Our lymphatic system is what cleans up the mess in our body but it stops at the neck. So how does the brain get cleaned?
It turns out that cerebral spinal fluid that fills our brain travels down the outside of our blood vessels collecting cellular waste and carrying it out of the brain. Squeaky clean! But guess what? This process happens only when we are asleep.
Are you tired of getting a bad sleep? (Pun!) Then why not give acupuncture a try? We will come up with a point protocol specially for you to improve your quality of sleep. And all we ask of you is that you cosy yourself into one of our recliners, kick up your feet and let our needles do the work.
How to Ease Your Holiday Stress
It’s that time of year again, when thoughts turn to decorating, gathering with family and friends,
and celebrating over good food. Oh. And stress. Lots and lots of stress. Whether it’s finding the
right gifts for everyone, balancing kids’ school concerts with party invites, or dealing with a
neverending to-do list, the holiday season can be downright overwhelming. It’s enough to make
even your normally zen acupuncturists just a little edgy.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Really. It doesn’t. Doing just a few things can help buffer you
against the stresses of the season so you can be really present and actually enjoy it.
A stress primer
When trying to reduce stress, it helps to understand how our bodies respond to stressful
situations. Thanks to millions of years of evolution, our nervous systems are finely tuned to
detect threats in our environment and respond by triggering a surge of adrenaline and other
hormones to, well, get us the heck out of Dodge. Quickly.
This is great when you’re, say, trying to evade a mountain lion intent on making you its dinner.
That’s what our fight-or-flight response is for: a quick burst of energy that lasts about 15
The problem with our modern lives, though, is that we are constantly exposed to stressors that
are not life-or-death situations, but our brains still perceive them as such. So the fight-or-flight
response gets fired again, and again, and again. Our bodies just don’t get a break. It’s a little
like running an engine at full throttle without any oil or coolant — pretty soon things start to melt
down and fly apart.
Stress can take a real toll on the body. It interferes with digestion, disrupts sleep, lowers
immune response, slows healing, and muddies thinking. We all know the signs of stress:
tiredness, poor decision making, weird stomach symptoms, colds and flus that never seem to
end, and irritability. Really not fun at any time of year, but especially not around the holidays.
Beating holiday stress with acupuncture, KOH, and community!
So, you probably knew this was coming, but getting into the clinic more often during the holiday
season — or any stressful time — really is a great way to help ease stress. Both acupuncture and
Kruger Omni Healing (KOH) work with the same systems involved the stress response in the
In particular, acupuncture and KOH get the body back into a restful state and out of the fight-or-
flight cycle. In that mode, the body’s systems find their equilibrium again: digestion normalizes,
sleep improves, and immune and healing responses increase. In addition to decreasing stress,
regular treatments can increase the body’s resiliency so it responds to stressors more
appropriately. The body doesn’t go to DEFCON 1 when the line for gift-wrapping gets too long,
or a loved one forgets to pick up cranberry sauce before the stores close. Everyone suddenly,
miraculously, seems far less annoying.
Getting your treatments at Stillpoint also comes with a bonus stress-reducer: community! Social
interactions can greatly reduce stress, and when we’re stressed we often withdraw because we
feel we don’t have time to meet up with friends and acquaintances. Whether it’s chatting with
one of our friendly volunteer receptionists, or just taking in the energy in our treatment room with
fellow acu-nappers, Stillpoint provides many opportunities to amplify healing through
A serene holiday season
The holidays don’t have to be a stress fest. A little more needling, maybe a KOH session, and
the healing gift of community will all go a long way to curbing that fight-or-flight response. Then
you can leave the holiday stress to the movies. In fact, why not curl up on the couch and watch
Jimmy Stewart struggle to save a Depression-era bank at Christmas in It’s a Wonderful Life? Or
marvel at how the Cratchits keep the season in A Christmas Carol? And, if you want a laugh,
find a copy of Stuart McLean’s story “Dave Cooks a Turkey.” Your heart will definitely grow a
From all of us at Stillpoint, we wish our community a happy, healthy — and calm — holiday
I can’t tell you how often I have had this conversation, once someone finds out I’m an acupunk:
“Yeah, I’ve tried acupuncture.” (Non-committal look.)
Me: “Oh yeah? How did you find it?”
Them: “It didn’t really work for me. I don’t think acupuncture is all that good.”
Me: “How many times did you get treatment?”
Them: “Just the once.”
As my father used to say, “If I had a nickel for every time I heard that, I’d be a millionaire!” It’s true! Well, maybe not a millionaire, but I’d certainly be dining out a lot more often than I do now.
And why do I hear this so often? I’ll tell you. It’s not something generally made common knowledge. It’s not even something I was taught at school, but it’s something that is very well acknowledged in Asia where acupuncture has a much higher success rate. Acupuncture, like going to the gym or changing a bad habit, takes time. It takes time and it takes some commitment from the person seeking to get better. In my experience, those people who commit to two or more treatments a week for the first two or three weeks are those who can say emphatically, “acupuncture works!”
Think how ridiculous that same conversation would sound if we were talking about exercise: “Yeah, I tried the gym once. I didn’t lose any weight so exercise didn’t work for me.”
If you want change, real change and real healing, you’re going to have to get ready to commit to the process of getting well. Oh sure, I have had ‘miraculous’ treatments where years of chronic pain melted away after just a treatment or two. It happens from time to time. By and large, though, healing through acupuncture and Chinese medicine is a process, and one that can often take some time before the results can be seen. As one of my favourite teachers said, “Chinese medicine is like gardening; you must prepare the conditions for life, then after that nothing may happen for some time. Then one day you wake up, and the little shoots have come through the soil, reaching for the sun.”
Make that commitment, and start reaching for the sun.
This is a funny trait that I think we all have, to some degree or another. The attitude that things are ‘good enough.’ That, while our health might not be perfect, it’s liveable and we aren’t apt to complain or do anything about it. Yes, our shoulders and back hurts, our sleep is poor and we get headaches from time to time, but it’s too much hassle to do anything about it and as long as we can continue to show up for work, we’ll just deal with it.
I see this all the time in my practice – patients come in with a variety of ailments, get to a place of, say 70% improvement, and then discontinue their treatments, because they are now able to get back to work, or sleep four hours without pain, or stand at the kitchen sink long enough to do the dishes. It’s good enough.
It’s important to stop for a moment and ask yourself why ‘good enough’ is good enough. Don’t you deserve to be pain free, to be able to throw a ball around with your kid, to dig in your garden, to be able to sit comfortably and sleep peacefully?
Yes you do.
The question you need to be asking yourself is, “how much better can I be?” After every treatment I ask my patients, “how are you feeling?” as a way to get them to check in with themselves. I am now beginning to get them to think about this next question. How much better can they feel, how much more can we improve their quality of life? It should be an ongoing dialogue, one that continues through one’s life, and NEVER stopping at “good enough.”
Because “good enough” isn’t good enough. You deserve better.
Mind-body medicine. This is often a term used for any form of treatment that isn’t pharmaceutical or nutritional in nature. It’s also a term that really rubs me the wrong way, especially when it’s applied to acupuncture.
The thing about ‘Mind-Body Medicine’ that gets me is the idea that somehow the mind and the body are seperate entities, co-existing within a microcosm that interacts with the outside world through the senses and whatnot. One dependant on and affecting the other, but still somehow separate, and thus treatable separately. Psychologists treat the mind, while medical doctors and surgeons treat the body, and never the twain shall meet.
Tell me this then: where is the mind? Is it in the cranium, contained within the neurons of the brain? Is it in the heart, as poets would have you believe? Is it the endocrine system? I’ll tell you where I think it is:
It’s in the big toe. Also it’s in the back, the stomach, the heart, the brain and any other anatomical structure you care to point to. It is, simply, inseparable from the body. They are one and the same. Don’t tell me that what you ate this morning for breakfast doesn’t have an effect on your mental clarity, your mood and how you interact with the people around you. Or how the throbbing pain from stubbing your toe doesn’t make you grumpier. Or that how the sun was shining as you walked to work didn’t lift your mood and make you forget about the argument you had with your spouse last night.
It’s clear to me that your ‘mind’ is quite the same as your body, and vice-versa. Treat one and the other is affected. Abuse one and the other shall also share in the pain.
This is the secret to acupuncture. Chinese medicine would never call itself ‘mind-body medicine’ because we as practitioners don’t see the separation between the two. We see only holism. Treat the heart and one’s sleep improves. Reduce the fight-or-flight response and the IBS symptoms you’ve been suffering with for years eases. Aid the lower back to become pain-free and the anxiety and irritability you’ve been experience will lift.
One and the same.
ZuSanLi translates into English as “Walk Three Miles” and when I learned about it, the story was that monks would routinely stimulate this point, either through acupuncture or simple massage, to gain the strength to walk another three miles. The implication is that this point has to do with stamina & fortitude. Studies have also shown that this point does a whole bunch of other useful things, which makes it a great point to get to know.
ZuSanLi has been shown to elevate white blood cell count, providing a good boost to one’s immune system. A recent study also showed that ST 36 caused a 24 fold increase in the release of Adenosine, which is the body’s own anti-inflammatory chemical. Experientially, ST 36 is needled for a wide variety of issues including nausea, fatigue, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, abdominal distention and bloating, as well as being just a good ‘tonifying’ point.
A story about ST 36 which is very familiar to the Japanese is the first sentence of Haiku Master Basho Matsuo’s diary (1689) “Okuno Hosomichi (Narrow Passages In The Back Country).” He writes, “I have sewn a torn part of my undergarments. I have changed the strings of my hat. I have [stimulated] my ST 36. My mind is now totally occupied with the moon over the Matsushima islands…” He was ready for a long walk of 1,500 miles after activating ST 36. This means that our ancestors knew very well that ST 36 has the effect of speeding recovery from fatigue.
ZuSanLi can be located about four fingers below the knee joint, just to the outside of the tibia (the large bone of your lower leg). If you press around the area you will find a large-ish area that may be a bit achey. Giving it a rub before a run, if you feel an illness coming on, or at the beginning of a particularly strenuous day may just help you walk that extra three miles.
A friend of mine asked this question the other day:
“I don’t understand how it is that a double-blind study of acupuncture can’t be performed. People (like Dr. Paul Encke) keep saying it’s impossible, but I say, a device which hides whether or not the needle actually penetrates the skin might at least be a step in that direction! Then the practitioner wouldn’t know either, right?”
It’s a great question, and one that anyone who is studying acupuncture struggles with all the time. Scientists have indeed made steps towards this device but the truth is, this question actually misses the point of what makes an effective acupuncture treatment and how differently Chinese medicine and western science view the body.
The people studying the acupuncture response generally have an unspoken premise that disease can be treated using the same set of acupoints in all people studied, whether mock or real acupoints used makes no difference. The individual and the disease are seen as distinct and the focus tends to be on the disease. But acupuncture is not like a drug, acupuncture neither adds nor subtracts molecules to the person nor directly changes disease. Needles are simply inert bits of stainless steel, after all.
The biggest problem with attempting a double blind study in my view, however, is that for an effective treatment to be given there must be some form of contact with the patient. Ie., the needle gets inserted, and then it gets moved slightly (up and down, and/or with a small twisting motion) until the patient indicates that they can feel ‘de qi’. De qi means ‘the arrival of qi at the acupoint,’ and is characterized by a feeling of achiness, numbness, pressure etc. In many of the studies that I have read about, the practitioner is strictly not allowed to speak to the patient, and is not allowed to stimulate the needle in any way. This eliminates a big part of what has always constituted an effective treatment, and from my point of view really negates the effectiveness of the study.
If a drug company wanted to study the effects of 100mg/dose of their drug, but were only allowed to use 50mg per treatment, what would they say about that study? How can anyone look at an acupuncture study wherein half of the treatment is disallowed, and say that it is a fair study?
The inconvenient truth for all of us on either side of the equation is that a reductionist model of scientific inquiry will likely never come to an understanding of how acupuncture works, simply because acupuncture, and Chinese medicine is not reductionist. It is in the very true sense of the word, holistic. Patient-practitioner interaction, stimulation of the needles at the acupoints, the four methods of inquiry (asking, palpating, listening, smelling), all of these are integral to an effective acupuncture treatment, and by their very nature cannot be allowed in a reductionist, double-blind study. What cannot be quantified by science, and what any practitioner will tell you, is that the acupuncturist is an integral part of the healing process, and cannot be separated out from the treatment! And neither, I might add, can the patient be separated from the disease.
The whole reason behind a double blind study is to eliminate the so-called ‘placebo effect’ which is a vague and not well understood function of patient’s own belief system on the results of the treatment. If you were studying the effects of a chemical, then of course eliminating the placebo effect would be paramount. But what if you were treating someone as a whole entity, mind and body together? If your treatments include mind and the effects of mind on the treatment, then why would you want to eliminate the mind from the study? Acupuncturists are not introducing an reactive element into the body that can be measured the way 2 mg of Lorazepam can be measured. So what then, are they doing?
Mind is body, body is mind. We have been sold a bill of goods by the pharmaceutical and medical establishment that the only way one can overcome a disease is by adding something tangible to the body, whether it be chemicals, radiation or a surgeon’s knife. Acupuncture represents a completely divergent method of healing from this view. Acupuncture and Chinese medicine are firm in their belief, borne out over thousands of years, that the mind and the body when aligned, can heal itself of a great many ailments. Amazing, isn’t it, the thought that perhaps, just maybe, given the right nudge we have the power to heal ourselves?
Call it placebo. Call it witchcraft. Call it whatever you like.
I’ll be in my clinic helping people get better.
A recent A-Channel Segment (see below) talked about a study done in Hong Kong regarding the safety of acupuncture. The study claims that acupuncture is a vehicle for AIDS, Hepatitis, and as Arlo Guthrie would say, “all kinds of mean and nasty things.”
While it is true that anything that penetrates the skin could potentially be a carrier of disease, in actuality acupuncture as it is practiced in North America is extremely safe.
In the past it was not uncommon for practitioners to sterilize and re-use needles, as it was more cost effective to do this. However, these days when even the more expensive needles are less than $0.10/needle, there is no reason at all to re-use them.
As well, in any state or province in North America that has a governing body for acupuncturists there is a requirement to adhere to strict clean needling protocols. This includes swabbing the acupoint with alcohol before insertion, and using disposable needles, among other common sense practices, such as washing one’s hands before handling needles.
Not In Our Backyard
Perhaps in parts of the world where regulations are not as tightly enforced, and in very rare occasions where a practitioner fails to follow the most basic of clean needle standards there is the potential for contamination. However, it is very safe to say that acupuncture in North America is very safe.
If you are ever in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask questions! Any practitioner worth his or her salt would welcome a patient’s inquiries as to the safety and efficacy of the treatment they are about to receive.