Needles Take Hold
Acupuncture, an ancient therapy, hits the medical mainstream.
Nearly 3,000 years ago, someone in China discovered that by inserting tiny needles into specific areas of the body, one’s health could be restored. It’s been working ever since.
What has long been accepted in the East is now finding a firm home in the West. Acupuncture, once dismissed as exotic nonsense, has finally gained respect and popularity in the US as a complement to conventional medicine. Nearly 80% of the nation’s health insurers cover it. As people take a more holistic approach to health they’re including acupuncture among the options to treat mostly chronic conditions—everything from back pain and digestive disorders to asthma and insomnia.
Acupuncture is an aspect of traditional Chinese medicine, a holistic system of practices that also includes herbs, diet, massage and meditation. It views humans as harmonious living beings that have a constantly changing flow of energy. Called qi (“chee”), this energy travels through the body’s 14 primary channels, or meridians, each corresponding to a different organ. Injury, illness and aging can cause stagnation or blockage of qi. With the insertion of fine needles into selected points along the meridians, acupuncture releases stagnated qi to obtain balance of energy and improve overall health.
Though mentioned in Western medical texts in 1892, most Americans hadn’t heard of acupuncture until 1971. That’s when New York Times reporter James Reston, stricken with appendicitis while in Beijing, returned with the story of how acupuncture successfully treated his post-surgical pain.
It took a while for the method to repeatedly demonstrate its effectiveness, as word-of-mouth transformed people’s skepticism into acceptance. Says Gerard Wozek, a college English professor in Chicago: “For years I had heard about acupuncture and I knew several people who had had great success with it.” Eventually, he would become one of them. “Several years ago, I was experiencing severe lower back pain, so I went to see an acupuncturist. During just the first visit my pain decreased considerably, and after several more treatments it was gone completely.”
People turn to acupuncture when Western medicine fails or to avoid the side effects from drugs. Others are simply looking for natural, more holistic treatment. Since pain responds so well to acupuncture, it’s the most common health reason people seek out this modality for backaches, migraines, arthritis and menstrual cramps. The World Health Organization (WHO) also lists asthma, colitis, drug and alcohol addiction, digestive disorders and stress, along with gynecological, obstetric and sexual problems, among the four dozen conditions treated successfully by acupuncture, either alone or in conjunction with other Eastern and Western therapies.
Some usages surprise. Considering a face lift? “Cosmetic acupuncture with herbal supplements and Chinese contouring massage is very effective as an anti-aging treatment,” says Larisa Turin, LAc, OMD, a licensed acupuncturist in Chicago. “It increases blood circulation to the skin of your face and rejuvenates it with visible results—skin regains its glowing color, small wrinkles disappear, deep ones become smoother and eyelids regain elasticity.”
How does a bunch of little needles do all this? Western science can’t fully explain how acupuncture works, nor can it prove or disprove the existence of qi. However, numerous studies have shown that inserting needles into some of the 400 acupoints located along the meridians stimulates nerves in the muscles located there. This stimulation sends electrical impulses up the spinal cord to the brain’s limbic and midbrain areas, and to the pituitary gland, all of which signal the release of chemicals such as endorphins that block pain. Another theory of how acupuncture works involves the thalamus, an area of the brain that relays pain signals. Acupuncture can increase blood flow there, altering the sensation of pain.
What happens during an acupuncture session? Before that first needle ever touches you, your acupuncturist will conduct the four basic examinations of traditional Chinese medicine— observing, listening/smelling, questioning and touching. The condition of your tongue, eyes, skin and hair, and the smell of your breath, give clues to your health. So does your pulse. You’ll answer questions about your medical history, lifestyle and health concerns, as your acupuncturist views you as a whole person, not a bundle of symptoms. Then, while you’re lying down, the practitioner first swabs the areas to be worked on with alcohol and inserts 15 to 20 sterile, disposable needles just under the skin, as if you were a human pin cushion. Because the needles are so thin (about three times the thickness of a strand of your hair), they enter with little resistance, so it shouldn’t hurt.
To increase the flow of qi, your acupuncturist may slightly rotate the needles or connect them to an electrical stimulator. “Then you may feel an ache or pressure at the needling points,” says James Y.Z. Wu, MD, LAc, a physician and acupuncturist in Smithtown and Melville, New York. There’s also moxibustion, which involves burning dried herbs (mainly mugwort) near the acupoints, and acupressure (a type of light massage). “Both improve blood and qi circulation, and reduce muscle spasms to alleviate pain and other symptoms,” he continues.
For the next 15 to 45 minutes, the needles do their job. “They work better if you’re calm,” says Wu. “You can breathe slowly or meditate, or even sleep.” Afterwards, you may still feel relaxed or invigorated. “Some people experience immediate relief from their symptoms. Others may need up to 15 more visits before they get better.” With each acupuncture session, treatment varies as your body rebalances its qi.
Acupuncture may not work for everything, but when it does, it prefers company. Says Turin, “Its effect is greatly enhanced by herbal supplements, [moxibustion]...and other Chinese modalities, depending on one’s condition and progress.” Smart lifestyle choices, such as a healthful diet, ample exercise and sleep, also help. As Wu puts it, “Needling is only part of it all. You have to actively participate in maintaining your good health.”
Gerard Wozek does. Regular follow-up acupuncture sessions are an essential element in his personal wellness program, along with meditation, long walks in nature and a mostly vegetarian diet. “It all keeps me feeling well-balanced and strong.