How long has acupuncture been around?
Interestingly, acupuncture is one of the oldest, most commonly used medical practices in the world. As part of a complex Chinese medical system called Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), acupuncture aims to restore, promote and enhance the natural healing response of the human body and mind.
Although the practice of acupuncture dates back thousands of years, it has been only in the past three decades that acupuncture has gained in both popularity and acceptance here in the United States. According to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, which included a comprehensive use of complementary medical practices by Americans (such as acupuncture ), an estimated 3.1 million U.S. adults and 150,000 children had used acupuncture in the previous year.
What is acupuncture and how does it work?
The term “acupuncture” describes one of a family of techniques involved in the stimulation of specific anatomical points on the body. The acupuncturist may include other East Asian therapeutic modalities to enhance the acupuncture treatment. These techniques are quite similar to conventional massage and trigger point therapy used here in the U.S. The acupuncture technique that has been most often studied scientifically involves penetrating the skin with thin, solid, metallic needles that are manipulated by the hands, heated or stimulated electrically.
Classically, the Chinese explanation on how acupuncture works is by influencing channels of energy that run in particular patterns through the body and on the body’s surface. These energy channels are called meridians. One can imagine rivers flowing through the body nourishing the organs and tissues. With any “obstruction” (pain, tension, dysfunction, etc.) to this smooth flow of energy, it is acupuncture’s aim to free this blockage and restore balance and harmony within the system. Although the meridians have been difficult to locate scientifically, one of our own researchers here at the UVM College of Medicine, Dr. Helene Langevin, has shown that the connective tissue that runs throughout all our body may hold some important answers to the classic meridian theory.
The modern explanation, which has been backed by scientific studies, is that needling the acupuncture points stimulates the nervous system, to release chemicals in the muscles, fascia, spinal cord and brain. These chemicals will either change the experience of pain or they will trigger the release of other chemicals and hormones, which can influence the body’s own internal regulatory system. This improved energy and biochemical change produced by the acupuncture treatment can result in stimulating the body’s natural healing potential.
What problems can acupuncture treat?
The World Health Organization recognizes the use of acupuncture in the treatment of a wide range of medical problems. Frequently, acupuncture is combined with conventional medicine. Some of the problems supported by WHO that have shown clinical benefit with acupuncture include: digestive disorders, respiratory disorders, gynecologic and obstetric issues, musculoskeletal and neurologic problems, including acute and chronic pain. Acupuncture has moderately strong clinical evidence supporting its use for problems related to tension, stress and certain emotional conditions.
What’s a normal treatment like?
If done properly, most patients feel only minimal pain as the needles are inserted. Once in place the needles do not hurt. All the needles used in the United States are FDA approved, sterile and single-use disposable. The number of treatments needed differs from person to person. More chronic medical problems may require weekly treatments for a few months, whereas acute problems can sometimes be treated with three or four sessions. It is quite common with the first couple of treatments to have a sensation of deep relaxation. We recommend taking it easy the day of your treatment as much as possible.
Do I have to believe in acupuncture?
No. Acupuncture has been used successfully in Veterinary Medicine for years. The animals do not understand what’s happening; yet have very positive responses to their acupuncture treatments. Of course a positive attitude and hope for one’s improved wellness can reinforce the treatment; a neutral attitude will not block the treatment. If someone has a particularly negative attitude towards their ability to heal, it may be best not to try acupuncture.
Is acupuncture safe?
There have been relatively few reported complications from the use of acupuncture needles over the past three decades. Especially with the millions of people treated each year and the billions of needles that have been used. The complications reported have been from improper sterilization and inadequate placement of the needle. When not delivered by a competent, well trained acupuncturist, serious adverse events can occur including infection and organ injury.
How do I find a qualified practitioner and is it covered by insurance?
More and more insurance companies are recognizing the value of providing coverage for acupuncture services. Each health policy must be reviewed to determine benefits. Hopefully with the positive research that is being produced with the support of the National Institute of Health, more insurance companies will get on board.
It is extremely important to visit a qualified acupuncturist. Most states, including Vermont, have a licensing board. Medical acupuncturists are physicians who have completed a formal acupuncture training program and successfully completed the examination requirements of the medical boards of their respective states.
To find practitioners who have been certified and or licensed to practice acupuncture, please visit the following websites:
Vermont Acupuncture Association
American Association of Medical Acupuncture
Philip Trabulsy, MD, is an orthopedist at Fletcher Allen and an assistant professor at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.