Acupuncture: What is it and How does it Work?
So you've decided that you're interested in dipping your toes in some non-conventional therapies. If you're looking into pain management, chances are, you'll come across acupuncture. In recent years, acupuncture has gathered considerable research and attention in the field of pain management. But the truth is, it is also helpful for many other conditions including weight management, headaches, blood pressure regulation, digestive troubles, menstrual regulation, muscle weakness, and many others.
What is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is part of traditional Chinese medicine. Although it is the most popular part of Chinese medicine, it is not the only part. A comprehensive Chinese medicine approach includes the needle therapy's partner, moxibustion (the burning of mugwort therapeutically), and several forms of bodywork including cupping, gua sha (scraping), and tui na (rhythmic massage).
Acupuncture is a highly refined therapy of Chinese medicine. When acupuncture developed, practitioners used nine types of needles. Now, the main type of needle used is known as the filiform needle - a very thin needle no thicker than fishing wire. The therapy consists of inserting these needles into designated points on the body (acupuncture points).
How does it work?
In Chinese Medical theory, acupuncture needles work by accessing and manipulating "Qi" (life energy) at the points inserted. This in turn regulates the body's organs and modulates disease. As for the western explanation of how it works, there are several theories. One is the gate control theory, which posits that stimulation from the needle activates thick diameter neurons, and overrides pain signals sent by thin diameter neurons. When the interneurons (neurons that process input) get these signals, they are more likely to send a signal to the brain that doesn't contain pain. Basically, shutting the "gate" to pain. Although this is a robust theory that explains why many physical therapy devices (like the TENS unit) work, it doesn't explain the lasting effect of acupuncture's pain relief.
Another theory is one of micro-inflammation. This theory states that the mild local tissue damage caused by the needle signals the body to pay attention to that location. The body does this by increasing blood flow to the area, and releasing inflammatory markers. Much like it would as if it were responding to a cut. This causes the body to focus on the area, overriding signals of chronic pain where no physical damage is present. Although this theory explains acupuncture's effect on chronic pain, it doesn't explain how distal points (needling feet for headaches, for instance) work.
Yet another theory uses the fascial paradigm to explain acupuncture. In this theory, the needles influence the connective tissue of the body. Since connective tissue intimately involves every type of cell in our body, it can influence any part of our body. Although this theory is much more general, it is closest to encompassing all that acupuncture is. In fact, the Fascial Anatomy Trains developed by Tom Meyers has striking resemblance to acupuncture meridians.
Will it Hurt?
Usually, the practitioner inserts needles through the top layer of skin fairly fast. So that even if you do feel anything, it is just a momentary prick. If pain worries you, you can ask your practitioner to use distraction techniques. These are a set of techniques such as tapping, rubbing, or scratching, that can distract you from the needle. All acupuncture practitioners learn distraction techniques in training, and can use them so that your session is as painless as possible.
After the needles are in, you might feel nothing at all, or a dull, distending sensation. Chinese medicine calls this the "de qi" sensation, and it is considered desirable in acupuncture.
How Soon Should I Expect Results?
Like all therapies, acupuncture isn't a magic bullet that works just after one treatment. Even though it involves needles, it is still a rather low-force intervention, and takes time to work. We recommend once or twice a week, for 4-6 weeks of treatment before evaluating results.