Acupuncture: The I of the Needle

Gary Piscopo, ND, LAc 

Although more people are becoming aware of the benefits of acupuncture, for many it still remains a rather exotic and somewhat dangerous sounding therapy. The idea of having needles stuck in one’s body can conjure up some rather unpleasant images. Hopefully, this article will help to dispel some of the more common misconceptions about acupuncture.

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is actually part of a larger system of medicine currently known as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Just as surgery is one part of conventional medicine, so acupuncture is only one part or modality within TCM. Acupuncture involves the insertion of very fine, sterile needles into special areas of the body in order to affect the flow of qi. Qi, which is similar to the naturopathic concept of the vis medicatrix naturae, can generally be thought of as the energy that makes the body and mind function. It can also be thought of as the “life force” or “natural healing energy” of the body.

How does acupuncture work?

Like many things in medicine, the definitive physiological explanation for how acupuncture works from a Western scientific perspective is not known. There are many theories, including the release of brain chemicals or a change in flow of ions within the body, but much more research needs to be completed before we have even a basic understanding of this phenomenon. A very simplified translation of the tradition Chinese explanation is that pain and disease within an individual is caused by the restricted movement of vital nutrients, such as qi, blood, and moisture. Acupuncture assists in correcting this pathological situation and bringing the body and mind back into balance.

Does acupuncture hurt?

For those of you who have images of being stuck with multiple hypodermic needles, the sensation of an acupuncture treatment is nothing like this. Unlike hypodermic needles, which are large bore, hollow needles with a cutting edge, acupuncture needles are solid and have a sharp, pointed end. As to their diameter, generally 4 to 7 acupuncture needles can fit inside one ordinary 14 gauge hypodermic needle. This does not mean the treatment is pain free, but generally there is only a slight pressure sensation as the needle is inserted into the skin. Many people do not realize that there are different insertion techniques or ways of putting the needles into the body. The type of insertion technique – that is, how much stimulation the acupuncturist applies to the needle – will also affect how much sensation the patient will feel.

Is acupuncture safer and more effective than conventional medicine?

Like any medical procedure, acupuncture has both side effects and variability in its effectiveness. Being more “natural” does not change this fact. Acupuncture is not a magic wand that can, of its own, reverse years of negative lifestyle choices such as poor diet, smoking, or lack of exercise. Similarly, acupuncture is not indicated for all conditions. Finally, in the hands of an untrained or inexperienced individual, acupuncture can result in grave medical complications.

How do I find a good acupuncturist?

An acupuncturist should be properly credentialed, just like any other medical practitioner. Acupuncturists are certified by the NCCAOM (703-548-9004) and licensed by the Department of Health in your state. Individual state associations of licensed acupuncturists also exist and can provide referrals from within their membership.

Unfortunately, other medical practitioners can practice acupuncture after as little as 200 hours of training. This is an insufficient amount of time to understand the subtle and complex nature of acupuncture, even for someone with a medical background. Be sure to ask if the person you are considering as a practitioner has at least a Master’s degree in acupuncture from an accredited institution.