HOW DOES ACUPUNCTURE REALLY WORK?
As a student in acupuncture college many years ago, we learned lots of different theories for how and why acupuncture actually works. The theories ranged from research that showed the needles blocked pain receptors in the brain, to the fact that the needles released endorphins, or the body’s own naturally occurring opiates, which induced relaxation. This theory also explained why acupuncture works for smoking control, weight loss, addiction control, and IBS, and gives the patient a “feel good” sensation immediately following a treatment.
Another explanation is called “distraction theory.” By giving the brain a new sensation in the form of “new data” from the acupuncture needling, it will “let go” of the pain sensation it has been holding on to, which is how pain goes away.
But recent research has shown an absolutely new mechanism to explain acupuncture’s staggering success at treating pain. This new research was performed by Dr. Kathleen Hui and was recently published in a journal called Human Brain Mapping. Dr. Hui and her colleagues established unequivocal evidence of the deep modulating effects of acupuncture on the brain.
They mapped the brain during and after acupuncture treatment with Magnetic Resonance Images. These MRI images showed signal decreases in the human brain in the area of the amygdala, commonly known as “the seat of the emotions.” The amygdala is generally activated by emotions like fear, anger, sadness or pain. They showed through MRI mapping that acupuncture actually decreased the effects of the various emotions that would generally increase the amygdala’s activity. This, they hypothesized, is where the calming or modulating effect is derived from during the acupuncture treatment. The amygdala acts in conjunction with other parts of the brain to produce the final emotional states we feel as our “experience” and, in this way, acupuncture can actually change the way we “feel” and “experience” ourselves and our subjective universe.
Another recent study on mice performed at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, reported in The Guardian (UK) on 5/30/10, showed that acupuncture works to reduce and eliminate pain by stimulating cells in the body to produce a chemical called adenosine, a naturally occurring anti-inflammatory and painkiller. As a result of this increasing adenosine, the inflammation is reduced and, therefore, the pain is also eliminated.
We find even more evidence for how and why acupuncture works in another study, where researchers took lab rats and altered their stomachs and gastrointestinal tracts to make them either not have enough, or have too much, digestive acid. These scientists performed acupuncture on the point of the rat’s leg known as Stomach 36. What they discovered was that this point had an adaptogenic effect* in regulating the stomach acid.
In other words, the same acu-point, St 36, both increased the stomach acid in those rats with inadequate acid levels and, conversely, decreased the stomach acid in those rats with too much stomach acid. For those of you unfamiliar with the anatomy and physiology of the stomach, it’s the stomach acid that basically enables us (and rats) to break down, emulsify, and digest the food we eat.
So what can we conclude about acupuncture from this study on rats? That it has an adaptogenic, or balancing, effect on the body. Every day my patients ask
me about the specific acu-points I use on them, and why I use the points I do. Some patients have more questions than others. You might think that after doing acupuncture on a daily basis since 1983 on tens of thousands of people, and having treated just about every conceivable type of ailment known, that I might be tired of answering questions.
On the contrary, my favorite activity is talking about what I do. And the well-thought-out, well-articulated question is actually a great deal of fun to answer. The problem I encounter is this: patients of mine who are really scientifically-minded are sometimes left unsatisfied by my answers because most of my answers focus on metaphors and examples, rather than on scientific research.
Don’t get me wrong, there are hundreds of thousands of scientific articles on acupuncture published in medical journals. Although acupuncture is easily interpreted and verified scientifically, to me at least, it is much more fun, intriguing and interesting when viewed as a natural phenomenon from the natural world and interpreted in metaphor.
For example, one of my favorite metaphors that I use to describe how acupuncture works is that the acupuncture meridians are giant waterways within the body. And just as when a beaver builds a dam in the river that stops the water from flowing smoothly, so, too, will a physical or emotional injury cause a blockage in an acupuncture meridian.
These acupuncture meridians are like little rivers in our body, and these rivers, or pathways, are the source of our energy and our well-being. When these energetic pathways open and allow chi, or our life force, to flow smoothly and without any blockages, then we feel great; we are without pain, and have an abundance of energy. But the moment we have any type of health problem, from painful knees or headaches, to prostatitis, hot flashes, PMS, reduced sex drive, infertility, arthritis, or eczema, we know that according to acupuncture theory, we have a blockage in one or more of our meridians.
The remedy in acupuncture is to use the painless needles to unblock the meridians, and free the stagnant, or stuck, energy out from where it had been blocking the river from flowing smoothly. We have many meridians in our body; from the colon meridian, which governs digestion and the skin, to the kidney meridian, which governs sex drive, energy, motivation, courage and urination. The heart meridian governs our emotions and dictates our ability to be vulnerable and open in relationships. The liver meridian has a lot to do with headaches and digestion, or feelings of resentment and being overwhelmed.
To return to our original question, “How does acupuncture work?” The answer is complex and can be answered in many ways. One comment that I hear again and again from my patients, however, is, “I don’t know how or why this works, but everyone else in my office has gotten sick from this flu that’s going around, and I still feel great!” Or, “I don’t know why, but I feel more relaxed and able to cope with stress when I get my acupuncture treatments.” Or, “I don’t know what you did, but my diarrhea/constipation has gone away completely.”
Frankly, I love the healing and transformative powers of acupuncture, and I am constantly amazed at the various results each of my patients report to me. I consider myself to be about the biggest skeptic on the face of the planet, but when I hear my patients coming in week after week, and reporting really amazing and positive outcomes from their treatment, it makes me very happy.
Last week, when I entered the treatment room to remove a patient’s acupuncture
needles, I startled him from a very deep sleep. When he finally awoke, got dressed and came back out to the reception area, he said: “Boy, I don’t think I’ve experienced that deep of a relaxation in a long time!”
Perhaps you are a skeptic too? Good! I invite you to find an acupuncturist and, together, as a team, you can work to select the best ways to heal and return to the best health possible. From someone who is a skeptic, I can promise you that acupuncture can help you heal.
Let’s show the world of Western medicine that there IS a reason for the insurance companies to keep paying for acupuncture, and that it really does work!
HOW SHOULD I FEEL AFTER MY ACUPUNCTURE TREATMENT?
I’m asked this question a lot, and the answer is always the same: “It depends.” But on what does it depend? That is the real question. Well, it depends on many factors, such as the kind of problem you’re being treated for. Depending on what you’re being treated for, you might experience different types of reactions to the acupuncture treatment.
If you are being treated for a systemic problem, like migraines or ovarian fibroids, then you may experience a healing aggravation. This means your condition may actually appear to worsen or other uncomfortable physical or emotional symptoms may arise, but these (as well as the original problem) will subside as your body works to heal itself.
If you are being treated for a short-term, pain-related problem, then the likelihood of a healing aggravation is not as high.
Systemic problems include anything hormone-related or having anything to do with one of the various organ systems in the body. Examples are the cardiovascular system, the central nervous system, the emotional system, the urinary system, the digestive system, and the like. Because these systems are so complicated, often a problem related to one of the systems might take longer to heal.
When treating these types of problems, a person will often experience a healing aggravation, or healing crisis. This could mean you experience a rash, headaches, or even nausea. Sometimes, certain emotions such as anger, or weepiness, may overcome you.
These are all signs that your body is healing and correcting imbalances by releasing physical and emotional toxins that may have been held in the body. The healing aggravation occurs when the problem gets temporarily worse before getting better.
Depending on the severity of your health problem, you may experience positive results immediately, or the treatment might take some time. The length of time it takes to feel the healing results of the treatment may be anywhere from one treatment to six months of treatments.
I’ve seen many migraine patients who experienced relief with one treatment, and other migraine patients who didn’t experience complete pain relief for about six months or so after the treatment. In general, the more severe the health problem, and the longer you have had the problem, the longer it’s going to take to heal and establish permanent results.
Please remember that this is a general rule and, depending on other factors, even a longstanding, severe problem can sometimes respond quite well to acupuncture in just a few short weeks. I recently treated a man in his 50’s for long-standing asthma and coughing, which cleared up in three treatments. I generally tell people that it’ll take half as long as you’ve had the problem to completely heal it. But that is not to say that you won’t experience significant relief and benefits from your treatments long before this time period. It has been my experience that most people find significant relief in just three or four treatments, regardless of the length of time they’ve had the problem.
Treatment time will vary depending on what result we are trying to accomplish and the following additional factors:
1. How many needles are used?
2. How many treatments have you received?
3. Which type of acupuncture is being used?
4. How much toxicity is stored in your tissues and cells?
5. How much anxiety or stress are you under?
6. How easy is it for you to relax?
7. What is your diet like?
8. How much water and other fluids do you drink to keep your body hydrated and flushing out toxins?
9. Do you exercise regularly?
1. How many needles are used?
Some forms of acupuncture may use only one or two needles placed strategically on specific points meant to elicit a constitutional balancing. Other treatments may use 20 to 30 needles or more. Depending on the strength of the various types of treatments, you may feel entirely different and get entirely different results. In fact, even if you had the same treatment for two consecutive weeks, you might feel different after each treatment, because the energy traveling through your acupuncture meridians is constantly shifting and changing.
2. How many treatments have you received?
In general, the more treatments you receive, the better results you are going to have. This is also true in terms of frequency. If you have been feeling very depressed and come in for acupuncture, I will probably recommend you have treatments twice a week. This is not to say that you won’t get as good a result if I only see you weekly, or twice monthly, but you will receive the benefit more quickly if you receive treatments more often. Most people receive a very nice benefit from the treatment after about eight to ten treatments, and then they will often decide, to let the frequency trail off to every other week, or once a month.
3. Which type of acupuncture is being used?
There are so many different types of acupuncture. Each type was “invented” by a different doctor and most have proven to be quite successful. You could go to 20 different acupuncturists and receive 20 different types of treatments. The important thing is that you experience significant improvement and that you feel comfortable with the acupuncturist and your treatments. Comparing types of acupuncture treatments is like comparing apples with asparagus. Each practitioner you see will tell you something different.
4. How much toxicity is stored in your tissues and cells?
Most people living in our culture do not eat and drink only perfectly healthy food. Also, if you live in a large city you are breathing air that is not too pure. So, for the average patient I see, there is quite a bit of detoxification that goes along with the acupuncture treatment. Often people will report headaches, changes in bowel and urination habits, and emotional shifts. If you are someone who rarely expresses yourself emotionally, you might find that after receiving regular acupuncture treatments, you are more apt to say what is on your mind. On the other hand, if you tend to have an explosive streak in you, you might tend to become more calm and relaxed, as you detoxify.
Above all, acupuncture allows the body to heal itself by releasing toxins and allowing a free flow of energy throughout your body to help you reestablish harmony in your body and in your life.
WHY ACUPUNCTURE DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK
There are a number of reasons why the application of acupuncture doesn’t always work. Here are just a few of the possible explanations:
1. Misdiagnosis: Usually, diagnosis is performed from the point of view of Chinese traditional medicine, or TCM, and this can be a fairly complex process. It may involve reading the pulse and tongue. If the diagnosis is wrong, the treatment won’t be very effective.
2. Another type of misdiagnosis is when the patient enters into acupuncture treatment with an incorrect Western diagnosis. Here’s an example: A patient comes for acupuncture treatment with what she is told are ovarian cysts, but it turns out she is actually suffering from endometriosis or PID (pelvic inflammatory disease.) This misdiagnosis will complicate, and possibly lengthen, the acupuncture program.
3. Sometimes if a patient is on prescription medications, it is difficult to get an accurate reading of the pulse and tongue diagnosis. We never have a patient stop their prescription medications, but the medications may sometimes complicate the acupuncture diagnosis and treatment to some extent. This is an unfortunate circumstance that cannot be changed, since we will rarely advise the patient to discontinue their Western medications in favor of acupuncture. The two modalities are complementary and, in the majority of cases, can be used together quite successfully.
4. Another example is when a patient is taking lots of pain relievers, antihistamines or antidepressant medications. Again, this makes the Chinese diagnosis more difficult because the medications can distort the Chinese diagnostic picture somewhat.
5. Lack of adequate treatment: Often a person has come to expect instant results through Western medicine. With Chinese medicine, including acupuncture and herbs, it can take a longer period of time to get results, since the treatments are much more subtle than what the person may have come to expect with Western medicine. Some people stop their treatment long before giving acupuncture an adequate opportunity to work. They incorrectly think that they should have achieved results sooner, but don’t fully understand the subtleties of how acupuncture and Chinese medicine work.
6. Frequency of treatments is inadequate: For acute or severe pain, it’s necessary to have acupuncture a minimum of twice weekly. In fact, if we lived in China, one would receive treatments daily, or even twice daily when in severe pain. If a person chooses to only have monthly treatments, for example, and they have acute pain, it makes it much harder for the acupuncture to work.
7. Nutritional imbalance: I have seen many people with headaches or chronic neck, shoulder, back or leg pain, who do not respond to acupuncture until adding the missing nutritional supplements to their diet. The most common nutrients missing are usually essential fatty acids, sodium, potassium, silica, calcium and magnesium. These nutritional needs can be easily determined by blood testing and/or hair analysis.
8. Clients do not properly follow recommendations: Often I’ll prescribe Chinese herbs to complement the acupuncture treatment. If the patient doesn’t follow through by taking them, it reduces the effectiveness of the acupuncture treatments.
9. Unrealistic Expectations: Some people have had problems or pains for months or even years, and expect the problems or pains to be resolved very quickly, as if one were taking a prescription drug. But acupuncture can take longer. Also, the effects of acupuncture can be more subtle than most of us are used to.
The important thing to remember is that there are many different acupuncture techniques. If one technique doesn’t work, ask you doctor to try another technique or another type of treatment, such as Chinese herbs, homeopathy or nutritional supplements.