Alternative therapies

The Truth About Acupuncture

The introduction of Acupuncture as a popular treatment for chronic pain really began during the Nixon presidency when China and the United States re-invigorated their trade relations.  Since that time there has been a growing application of this ancient healing art to Western mainstream medicine.

You may be asking whether it really works.  This article will attempt to disclose for you the truth about Acupuncture.


The actual person who invented Acupuncture is unknown.  Even the exact time period of its’ invention is a mystery.  What is known is that millions of Chinese people have used it as medical therapy for many centuries.

The Cochran Review (an organization that evaluates the effectiveness of therapies scientifically) rates the objective information for Acupuncture’s effectiveness with mixed results.  There are some scientific studies that show benefit while others show it equal to a placebo effect.

Presently, most states in the U.S. require licensing for non-physician Acupuncturists.  Many physicians have integrated this form of therapy into their practices (especially those physicians who are focused on treating chronic pain).

How It Works ?

There are few good scientific explanations for how Acupuncture works.  The ancient Chinese explanation revolves around the concept of body energy (called Chi).  The Chinese believed that by placing needles into various points in the body (called meridians) you could “balance” the Chi.  They believed that an imbalance of the Chi causes illness.

Curiously, the meridians on ancient Chinese charts mirror the locations where a specialized type of nerve fiber (called a C nerve fiber) can be found anatomically.  C fibers are slow conducting nerve fibers that transmit chronic pain signals.

Acute pain is transmitted by a different type of nerve fiber called an A-delta fiber.  These types of fibers are very rapid conducting.  Their pathways do not correspond to the ancient Chinese meridians.

autonomic nervous system and acupuncture charts

Much of what I am telling you is fairly recent neuroscience information. The C-fiber arrangement varies from one person to the next.  They are also very tiny and difficult to identify on gross anatomy dissection.

The C-fiber variation from person to person may help explain why there can be great variability in the effectiveness of Acupuncture from person to person.      

By stimulating the C-fibers that are connected to a particular organ system a “counter-irritative” stimulus travels to the spinal cord and “closes the gate” on pain transmission.  The “Gate Theory” of pain transmission was originally described by Drs. Melzack and Wall in 1965.

Once the Acupuncture needles are placed in their appropriate meridian, they can be spun, heated, an electrical stimulus applied, or a laser applied.  The very fact that a needle is inserted serves as a “counter-irritative” stimulus.

Gate Control Theory of pain

Though this may seem strange to you, the same mechanism is in play when you get a massage, or apply a pain relieving cream, or even a TENS unit. Any irritative stimulus applied to the skin can have a “gating effect.”

Who Gets It

The following conditions have been shown to be effectively treated with Acupuncture:

There may be other conditions that can be treated but the ones I have listed show the most consistent support in the medical literature.

Who Shouldn’t Get It ?

Generally Acupuncture is safe.  In the following conditions Acupuncture is to be avoided:

  • People with bleeding tendencies. That includes people who are on “blood thinners” for certain medical conditions.
  • Pregnant women as Acupuncture may induce labor.
  • People with an implanted electrical device (such as a pacemaker) as the electrical stimulus applied to Acupuncture needles could cause the device to malfunction.

Possible Complications

There are few complications that can occur with receiving Acupuncture. The most common (and avoidable) complication is infection. The needles used should be sterile and the skin should be prepped with alcohol or some other solution before insertion.  These simple measures should avoid any significant infectious complications.

There has also been several reports of organ puncture with deep needle insertion.  I would imagine that this complication is more likely in a very thin person.  The diameter of the needles being used should not pose a significant risk of this complication.  A trained, competent, responsible Acupuncturist will be able to avoid this complication.

Acupuncture for low back pain

One should expect some soreness after an Acupuncture treatment.  After all, your skin has been pierced.  This should be short lived and quite minor (again as the needles are so thin).

There may be a small amount of pain with needle insertion.  Needle pain is largely due to the thickness of a needle, the sharpness of the needle (dull needles hurt more), the area being pierced, the length of the needle, the pain threshold of the person receiving the needle puncture, and the irritative effects of what may be injected through the needle.  Acupuncture needle insertion is nearly painless.

acupuncture needle

What About Insurance ?

Because Acupuncture is considered Complementary and Alternative Medicine many insurance companies do not cover the procedure.  Be sure to check with your particular insurance carrier before scheduling your appointment.

Who Does It ?

A licensed Acupuncturist or Physician is who is recommended.  Use the same wisdom in choosing your Acupuncturist as you would in choosing a medical practitioner.

You can expect you appointment and therapy to last no more than an hour.  You will probably be invited for treatments once or twice a week for several weeks.  Acupuncture treatments usually take several sessions to see results.

Summary Remarks

In summary, Acupuncture can be a safe additional therapy for several ailments.  It is particularly helpful with chronic pain.  It is a safe form of therapy with minimal risk.  Now you know the truth about Acupuncture.

Important Note
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