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What Is Acupuncture? This Is Exactly How Acupuncture Changes Your Body

This ancient therapy has modern science to back it up.

The practice of both acupuncture and acupressure (the application of pressure, rather than needles) is rooted in antiquity. The oldest surviving acupuncture needles were discovered in the tomb of a Chinese prince, buried in 113 BC, but the therapy may date back centuries if not millennia earlier in the Far East—and possibly much farther afield. When researchers examined the 5,000-year-old mummified body of Ötzi the Iceman, found in the Austrian Alps in 1991, they noticed a number of tattoos on his body, which were located strikingly close to classical acupuncture points.

How Acupuncture and Acupressure Work

One remarkable feature of acupuncture and acupressure is that 21st-century science cannot fully explain them. Acupuncture needles are known to stimulate specific nerve fibers that modify pain transmission in the spinal cord as well as stimulating the secretion of pain-relieving endorphins and other neurotransmitters in the brain. Acupuncture points have also been found to correspond to myofascial trigger points—regions of heightened pain sensitivity.

Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) explain their methods quite differently. According to the holistic principles of TCM, ill health is due to an imbalance or blockage in the flow of qi, or vital energy along energy pathways known as meridians. Stimulating certain points with needles or pressure helps to restore the flow through these pathways. The insertion and manipulation of an acupuncture needle can often lead to the sensation of dechi, which is a feeling of heaviness, soreness, numbness or fullness that travels along the meridians and is usually a sign of an effective treatment.

Are Acupuncture and Acupressure Effective and Safe?

Acupuncture has been shown to treat not only pain of many kinds, but also conjunctivitis, sexual dysfunction, tinnitus, and even phobias. The World Health Organization lists 28 disorders for which acupuncture has proved effective, including some such as morning sickness for which conventional medicines might not be prescribed.

Similarly, acupressure may help patients manage pain during labor, and relieve nausea and vomiting induced by chemotherapy. The virtue of both practices is that they are safe, non-invasive, drug-free and holistic—treating the condition and its underlying causes. Some research shows that acupuncture boosts immune function, suggesting it has a preventive role, too.

The Truth About Energy Pathways

According to traditional Chinese medicine, energy or qi continually flows through the body via a series of pathways, known as meridians. There are 14 major meridians that relate to different organs, tissue types, emotions and bodily functions. Physical, emotional and environmental factors may alter the flow of qi, resulting in a deficiency or excess of energy in different meridians. Using fine needles to stimulate particular points along the meridians, an acupuncturist aims to restore the normal flow of energy through the body, returning the body to health.

A Visit to an Acupuncture or Acupressure Practitioner

Acupuncture is practiced by many doctors as well as by TCM practitioners and each practitioner may have a slightly different approach. A practitioner will usually take a detailed medical history and he or she may also take your pulse, examine your tongue, study your skin or look for other physical signs that might have a bearing on your condition. For both acupuncture and acupressure treatments, patients lie on a padded couch or table, usually fully clothed but with sleeves or trousers rolled up to allow access to acupuncture points. Sessions vary in length from around 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the practitioner and the problem.

An acupressure practitioner will use deep-finger pressure at points along the meridian lines to reduce tension, relieve pain and treat a variety of disorders. During acupuncture, the practitioner inserts between three and 15 or more extremely fine needles at certain points along the appropriate meridian lines, gently twisting them as they go in. You may feel an initial twinge or dechi, which feels like a traveling fullness. Some practitioners may choose to connect the needles to an electrical stimulation device and adjust the intensity and frequency of an electric current between two needles. At the end of the session the needles are painlessly removed. The number of sessions required will depend on the condition and your response to the treatment.

Other TCM treatments

For certain disorders, including arthritis and digestive problems, the practitioner may use moxibustion—a practice as ancient as acupuncture. This involves holding a burning stick of moxa—Chinese mugwort (Artemesia argyi or A. vulgaris)—close to various acupuncture points, until the skin warms and reddens. Like the insertion of needles or application of pressure, this helps clear the meridian pathways.

“Cupping” may also be used to draw out harmful substances and improve the flow of qi. In this case, a flame is inserted into a glass cup to remove the air. This creates a vacuum, so that when the glass is placed over the skin, suction holds it in place.

Safety First

Make sure your acupuncturist uses only disposable needles. Both acupuncture and acupressure are safe and well tolerated but tell the practitioner if you are pregnant and mention any medical condition you have and other treatments or medicines you are taking.


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