You've probably heard of acupuncture. Maybe you've already tried it. But there must be some of you who can't wrap your head around it. How does it work? How can needles cure? Does it hurt? How can it be effective? Is it another charlatanism taking advantage of people's need to be healed from serious and life-threatening conditions?
All these questions were the ones I kept on asking myself before I had my first acupuncture session. But let's start from the very beginning.
I always had terrible headaches. It was that paralysing type of headache that leaves you no choice but to stay in bed and do nothing, because there is simply not much you can do. Throbbing pain and dizziness along with a very bad mood and endless grumbling - these were the words that described all the days I had to call in sick at work or cancel plans I had with friends because of my headaches.
After having tried several medications that promised to relieve pain, I noticed that the symptoms persisted and so did my frustration. But when what you do doesn't work, all you have to do is change - change the plan but not the goal.
It was high-time I approached my body in a more holistic way. In a moment of epiphany, I realised that for many years I actively chose to treat my body by addressing single symptoms rather than trying to find the underlying cause of these tortuous headaches.
This is exactly the greatest difference between conventional and alternative medicine. Conventional medicine targets a certain symptom, whereas alternative therapy sees our body as a living organism where everything is connected and interrelated. Alternative practitioners see pain as a sign that something's going wrong.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medicine-based approach that has been practiced for thousands of years as a way to treat a variety of conditions. It aims at triggering specific points on the skin with special needles. Yes, needles are used for therapeutic purposes in acupuncture! Each acupuncture needle slightly injures the insertion site which responds to this signal by stimulating the immune system. This stimulation causes a chain reaction that involves an increase in blood circulation as well as wound and pain healing.
Ancient Chinese acupuncture practice is based on the concept of qi (also known as chee or chi in English) which is a word describing the force flowing around our body. This force binds everything in the universe including living organisms. An effortless and ongoing flow of qi equals health, whereas an incorrect flow of qi may lead to pain and discomfort.
But how has Western medicine responded to this alternative way of dealing with pain?
In 1996, the United States (U.S.) Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave acupuncture its first U.S. seal of approval. That was when needles used in acupuncture were acknowledged as medical devices. Their manufacture as well as their labelling needed to meet certain standards including the needles being sterile, nontoxic, and labelled for one use only.
Following that great step of accepting a new way of dealing with pain and discomfort, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health of the US National Institute of Health (NCCIH) has confirmed that acupuncture can be used as an efficient treatment for various cases including neck pain, lower back pain, knee pain, headache and migraine.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has also listed a number of conditions in which acupuncture has been proven effective. Such conditions include high and low blood pressure, painful periods, allergic rhinitis, morning sickness, sprains, tennis elbow, peptic ulcer, dental pain etc. However, further studies are required in order to confirm whether acupuncture can be used as an effective therapy in individuals sufferring from neuralgia, stiff neck, substance, tobacco and alcohol dependence as well as spine pain.
Of course, as in all cases, each individual is different, so everyone is encouraged to consult their primary physician before opting for a complementary or alternative treatment. Another important aspect worth mentioning is that acupuncture should be practiced only by a licensed practitioner. As with any complementary therapy, it is advisable to use it alongside conventional treatments in cases of chronic or severe illness.
How does it work?
Acupuncture aims at stimulating certain parts of the body in order to resolve pain and contribute to an overall sense of well-being.
The acupuncturist has a discussion with the patient in order to assess their condition and understand what the underlying issue may be from a psychological point of view. As previously mentioned, pain usually shows that something is off in our body. For example, stress is in many cases the reason behind different kinds of pain. That's why discussion is vital in an acupuncture session.
Then, the patient is asked to lie down on their back, front or one side depending on where the needles are to be inserted. The licensed practitioner inserts one or more thin and sterile needles at certain points on your body. The needles will have to stay there between 5 or 30 minutes depending on the health issue each patient is facing.
As far as the number of visits are concerned, it varies depending on each person's condition. I started noticing improvement after my first meeting with the acupuncturist but the greatest results were to be seen after 4 sessions.
Does it hurt? And does it work?
They say that beauty needs sacrifice and so does health. So, you may feel a very brief tingling sensation or a slight prick as the practitioner inserts each needle. Once the needle is inserted, you may feel a mild ache but this is usually a sign that the acupuncture point is activated. It means that the treatment works! However, pain varies depending on each person and their perception of pain but, generally, acupuncture is relatively painless.
Cases of needles breaking or damaging an internal organ have been recorded, however they seem to be very rare.
What do I have to do before and after the session?
My acupuncturist told me that patients are advised to arrive at their appointment being relatively relaxed. Didn't really work like that in my case as I remember having a quite stressful day before indulging myself in an acupuncture session. Consuming caffeine is another no-go as it defeats the purpose of acupuncture (relaxing).
After your treatment, it's best to avoid alcohol or caffeine as well as heavy excercise and stressful work. However, make sure to check with your acupuncturist beforehand as they may follow a specific regimen or may give you additional tips depending on your health status etc.
Needles and beauty
Over the past few years, needles have started taking over the field of cosmetics. Cosmetic acupuncture has started emerging in Western societies and aims at making the skin look younger, fresher and smoother. Facial acupuncture can be considered as an alternative to other interventions such as Botox. Unfortunately, this is an area I haven't yet explored and don't intend to in the near future.
However, my experience in acupuncture used in alternative medicine settings has been positive and pleasant. It's a treatment that I go for every time I go through a stressful time or I feel that my headaches are about to make a comeback.