What is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is the ancient healing art of inserting thin needles into predefined spots on the body. The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies this practice as a viable “alternative medicine”. In 1997 the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) formally recognized acupuncture as a “mainstream medicine” healing option. [1]

Research on acupuncture has been dominated by the Chinese, and this makes sense as the origins of this practice date back thousands of years in China.

In the United States, acupuncture is most commonly used for pain relief. Very thin needles are inserted into specific acupuncture points on the body. These points correspond to the area of pain or injury. Acupuncture points are explained as places where nerves, muscles and connective tissue can be stimulated by the needles. Acupuncture proponents say that the stimulation increases blood flow while at the same time triggering the activity of our own body’s natural pain killers.

Overall research shows inconsistent and/or weak associations between acupuncture and long-term physical improvements, but there does appear to be some short-term pain relief benefits [2].

While relatively new to North America, licensed practitioners in the United States do treat patients seeking alternative or supplementary treatment for pain relief (predominately lower back pain and headaches) and other health concerns like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In a recent 2014 double blind study published in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, researchers found “significant positive association between acupuncture and IBS”[3].

Many other studies suggest that acupuncture may help ease chronic conditions of low-back pain, neck pain, and knee pain. [4]

Woman Receiving An Acupuncture Therapy

The most common approaches to acupuncture in the United States today are:

  • Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Based Acupuncture — The most commonly practiced in the United States, it bases a diagnosis on eight principles of complementary opposites (yin/yang, internal/external, excess/deficiency, hot/cold).
  • French Energetic Acupuncture — Mostly used by MD acupuncturists, it emphasizes meridian patterns, in particular the yin/yang pairs of primary meridians.
  • Korean Hand Acupuncture — Based on the principle that the hands and feet have concentrations of qi, and that applying acupuncture needles to these areas is effective for the entire body.
  • Auricular Acupuncture –- Otherwise known as ear-acupuncture and is based on the principle that specific acupuncture points on the ear help regulate the body’s internal organs, structures and functions. This technique is widely used in treating addiction disorders.
  • Myofascial Based Acupuncture — This technique is often practiced by physical therapists and is primarily a pain relief method of acupuncture. It is commonly used by athletes and other physically active individuals. This technique involves placing needles into various muscles, tendons, ligaments and joint capsules based on the structures showing the greatest pain or discomfort.
  • Japanese Styles of Acupuncture — This is sometimes referred to as “meridian therapy”. This technique uses acupuncture points, but instead of inserting needles into those points, you tap or apply pressure to those specific acupuncture points. Meridians are said to be the interconnecting pathways in the body that regulate body functions and overall energy systems for the body.

Outside of China, there is minimal research that has been done on the field of acupuncture to make reliable, generalized statements about the impact of acupuncture. It appears that used in conjunction with other interventions, acupuncture can have a positive, supplemental role in achieving optimal health and wellness for some individuals.

[1] Acupuncture | University of Maryland Medical Centerhttp://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/treatment/acupuncture#ixzz3O4bISO8q University of Maryland Medical Center
[2] “Does Acupuncture work for pain”, by Paul Ingraham, ScienceBasedMedicine.org; Sept. 2014
[3] Rafiei, R; “A new Acupuncture method for management of irritable bowel syndrome: A randomized double blind clinical trial”; Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, October 2014.
[4] National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCM) http://nccam.nih.gov/ ; November 2014