As a first year Chinese Medical student, it is apparent that people are curious about acupuncture. Patient education is a very important aspect for any practitioner of Chinese Medicine. The fact of the matter is – acupuncture is a unique type of disease treatment, especially when compared to the paradigm of western medicine. Patients need accurate information and clear communication from their practitioners in order to feel comfortable during treatment. Hopefully, if this is conducted properly, patients will return and maybe even feel confident enough in your skills to tell a friend! Here are the five most asked questions about acupuncture:
1.) What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is just one modality in the paradigm of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), in which small, sterile needles are inserted into the body at specific points to achieve a therapeutic effect. TCM is a heuristic and empirically based medical system. It was not founded on what we in the Western world would consider “research,” moreover; it was developed over years and years of clinical outcomes. It has been around for more than 2500 years and is one of the oldest practiced healing therapies in the world. Although acupuncture gets most of the limelight, TCM encompasses other modalities such as moxibustion, eastern dietary therapy, tui na, qi gong, and herbal medicine.
2.) How does acupuncture work?
Although some believe that Chinese Medicine – acupuncture especially – is very mystical, it was actually founded on common sense. The Chinese looked at the world –they observed nature, cyclical changes, and the elements and deduced something simple: Because the body is a microcosm of the universe, changes that occur in nature, can occur in the body as well. From this simple thought, the twelve channels or meridian system was founded. The twelve channels are believed to be the conduit through which the vital substance of qi (pronounced – /CHē/) flows.
Just to give a little background information: there are twelve rivers in China (not a coincidence twelve channels exist) and the Chinese observed what happened when a blockage occurred in one of the rivers – basically the water couldn’t make it downstream to sustain other villages. The same concept can be applied to the body. For example, if there is a blockage of qi at the shoulder, problems may manifest themselves in the elbow or wrist. Why, you ask? Well, the impediment of qi at the shoulder effects the downstream flow of qi and consequentially the anatomy and physiology of the whole arm. There is a famous saying in Chinese that says, “Bu tong ze tong,” which is translated to mean, “Where there is pain, there is stagnation.” To break this down a little further, in Chinese Medicine, pain and disease is thought to be stagnation and it’s our job as acupuncturists to decipher why this stagnation is occurring in the first place.
Back to the original question of how acupuncture works – The simplest answer is: acupuncture works by influencing qi beneath an inserted needle. We have various techniques that can be used to remove an “evil” (or pathogen for you western medical folks), disintegrate stagnation or obstruction allowing qi to flow freely, stimulate the functions of the organs to manufacture more qi, or direct qi to where it is insufficient.
3.) What is qi?
Qi is very difficult to define and for this reason there is not one word in the English language that can describe it. To be honest, even with many words, it is hard to explain. Some translations of qi include, life force, life energy, or energy flow. The problem with this translation is that a lot of the actual meaning is overlooked if you just call it energy. The best way to understand qi is to look at the Chinese character. The character tells a story of vapors rising from rice. This signifies active substance, meaning the rice, and activity, meaning the vapors rising up. Chinese physiology states that sustenance from food and air is transformed into qi by the body’s digestive process. This qi flows through the twelve channels and distributes all over the body. Those who have cooked rice know that the ratio of rice to water is a delicate balance. Too much water and the rice is soupy, not enough water and the rice is dry. However, the absolute perfect amount of water and the rice will be fluffy and moist. The making of qi is like baby bear – it has to be just right.
Furthermore, qi occurs at a molecular, atomic, and subatomic level – it is the vibratory energy that comprises all manifestations of energy. Qi can neither be created, nor destroyed; it simply transforms its manifestation. It has five physiologically important functions in the body including warming, transforming, activating, containing and protecting. For example, if qi is not containing properly, pathologies such as prolapse or diarrhea may occur in the form acupuncturists would call “qi fall.”
If I have lost you with the discussion of qi – consider this – what makes you any different from a cadaver? You are breathing, digesting, and reading this article – that difference between life and death is qi.
4.) Does it hurt?
Merriam Webster describes a needle as, “a slender hollow instrument for introducing material into or removing material from the body (as by insertion under the skin).” Yikes – as if they need that last parenthesis. The word “needle” causes traumatic childhood flashbacks of nurses equipped with huge hollow hypodermic needles intentionally piercing the skin in order to inject a plethora of vaccinations. It only takes one injection or blood draw – the first – to know and further be conditioned that “needles” usually hurt!
This is the very reason why people are fearful of acupuncture: since needles are involved, they assume serious pain will be inflicted. This is so far from the truth, in fact, acupuncture needles are about the width of one human hair. This denotes roughly 6-15 acupuncture needles can be inserted into the average hypodermic needle. The desirable sensation of an acupuncture needle is not sharp or stabbing. However, it should be a dull, heavy, or achy feeling. Most people find acupuncture very relaxing; in fact, many people easily doze off for a nap while the needles are still inserted.
5.) Is acupuncture safe?
In order to answer to this question, I must first ask a few questions. Question number one: “Would you go to a hairstylist for brain surgery?” Question number two: “Would you go to a physical therapist for acupuncture?” It all comes down to training, licensure, and clinical experience of the practitioner. It only makes sense for a person seeking acupuncture to go to a licensed acupuncturist, doesn’t it? Safety and efficacy of a trained professional is substantially higher than that of an untrained one. Also, there are certain conditions in which careful consideration must be applied when selecting acupuncture points. For example, there are acupuncture points on a pregnant woman that are absolutely contraindicated. It is up to the licensed professional to understand this and treat her accordingly.
Patients must know the rare but possible side effects of acupuncture, which include numbness, tingling, or bruising at the insertion site of the needle. Uncommon and more serious side effects include fainting, organ puncture, or infection. All of these side effects are highly unlikely especially if the patient chooses an experienced and licensed acupuncturist and not his or her hairdresser or physical therapist! Training is important – so choose wisely!