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
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.
As an acupuncturist I get asked this a lot.
The answer is a difficult and involved one. In actual fact, to answer the question of whether acupuncture works really rests on another question: does acupuncture work for your issue?
The answer, if I’m to be truthful, is maybe. Many people find acupuncture effective for them for a wide range of issues and disorders. A number of people find that acupuncture does not work for them, and their health issue does not improve from acupuncture treatments. An acupuncturist who does not admit to his or her failures isn’t one who I’d be inclined to refer to, personally. As an acupuncturist it is important to know when acupuncture is not working for your patient, and when to refer them to another practitioner or modality.
In my practice, eight treatments constitutes a course of treatments, but usually by four treatments both I and the patient can tell whether acupuncture is for them. Often it is, and we continue until the desired results are obtained. However, if the condition hasn’t improved after four treatments, I give the patient the option to continue and see what happens, or we can explore other options.
So the answer to the question of whether acupuncture works can only be answered by really giving acupuncture a good try, which is what any health professional would suggest, medical doctors included. You are always welcome to send me an email for a free consultation.
I’m wondering if anyone else has tried acupuncture for injuries? I cracked my knee cap as a part of my figure skating routine, and acupuncture brought the swelling down really quickly (my orthopaedic doctor said it would be swollen for a long time). It also helped with a torn quad muscle that wouldn’t heal properly and that I kept re-injuring. Acupuncture got it healed up quite quickly.
I found the treatments to be really relaxing and without any discomfort at all.Any good or bad experiences/views about acupuncture?
Here is a quick run down of some of the syndromes and disorders acupuncture can benefit. Acupuncture is commonly known to treat pain and injury of all types: back injury, tennis elbow, migraines, sports injuries, knee pain and the like. However, acupuncture does more than just relieve pain. Acupuncture has been shown to also treat anxiety, women’s issues, weight loss/obesity, infertility and conception, as well as insomnia and digestive disorders. Even after listing all these disorders above, we still have only touched the tip of what acupuncture can be good for.Because acupuncture works on the somato-energetic level predominantly, it is safe and side-effects free. Acupuncture performed by a trained professional is also almost completely painless, though at times mildly uncomfortable.
As the ancient Chinese did not, as a rule, have a problem with obesity, acupuncture does not have any set method for treating weight control. However, as there is a large psychological element to weight control (cravings, etc.), acupuncture is often found to be very helpful with weight management. Acupuncture has been shown to relieve cravings, both for food and substances. Acupuncture is also a great stress reducer, as it stimulates the release of the body’s natural pain management chemicals, dopamine and seratonin. Although there is never a replacement for willpower, acupuncture can help the dedicated person manage their weight.
Acupuncture can also treat eye disorders, such as conjunctivitis (pink eye), nearsightedness, and cataracts. Toothache and other forms of dental pain can be significantly reduced through acupuncture as well. Other facial disorders such as Bell’s palsy and facial paralysis can, if treated quickly after onset, be well treated by acupuncture. Studies have shown that getting acupuncture soon after a stroke can increase the rate and degree of recovery.
Acupuncture treats the whole person (not just the symptoms they are experiencing) on a physical, mental and emotional level. This means that treatment of physical problems also affects the way you feel about yourself. Therefore, emotional disturbances such as anxiety, depression and mania may benefit from acupuncture.
Whatever your symptoms or disorder, it pays to educate yourself about different forms of effective therapy. Studies have shown that educated patients often have a greater degree of recovery and a better outlook overall.