In simplest terms, acupuncture is the insertion of needles into the skin, but the Chinese word for acupuncture -- 针 灸 ( zhen jiu) -- also includes moxibustion, or the burning of Artemesia vulgaris (mugwort) over acupuncture points . While we can trace the roots of acupuncture over 2000 years ago to China, acupuncture (and Chinese Medicine in general) spread throughout the world, adopted and adapted to suite the adopting culture, resulting in many acupuncture traditions and styles.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine theories, health is characterized as the person's whole self being in balance and being in harmony with nature. When the balance is disrupted and when Qi (the energetic and material basis of everything) doesn't flow properly, illness occurs. Needles are inserted into points on the body in order to restore balance and maintain the proper, free-flow of Qi. Acupuncture works by stimulating points in order for the body to heal itself.
How does acupuncture work?
What kind of needles do you use for acupuncture?
For regular acupuncture treatments, single-use, surgical-grade stainless steel filiform needles that are sterilized by the manufacturer are used. (see photo above) Needle lengths most commonly used for most treatments range from 1/2 inch to 1 1/2 inches, depending where the point is located. In regions of the body with a lot more tissue, 2-3 inch needles could be used. There are longer needles, but they are infrequently to rarely used... except maybe in movies and on tv programs for dramatic effect.
Other types of needles used on acupuncture points include lancets for bleeding points, 7-star needles for tapping along the acupuncture channels or points, and intradermal needles. As with the regular needles, all of these needles and seeds are single-use and manufacturer sterilized.
Does acupuncture hurt?
Acupuncture is generally not painful. Some points can be more sensitive than other points and some people are more sensitive to needles than other people are. There may be mild discomfort at first insertion of the needle, but that typically subsides after the needle passes the outermost layer of the skin. Sometimes the Qi will become active at a point during a treatment, producing a mild aching or other sensation. That typically subsides within seconds as well.
Most people's experiences with needles consists of getting injections with hypodermic syringes, which can be quite painful. Acupuncture needles are completely different. They have a solid, filament-type structure. While there are many gauges of acupuncture needles, they are all very fine -- a fraction of a millimeter wide -- so almost as narrow as a hair or about the thickness of cat whisker. In addition to being so much narrower, nothing is being injected or drawn.
Is acupuncture safe?
When practiced by a qualified acupuncturist, acupuncture is very safe and most adverse events are minor. Two very large German studies of acupuncture safety* found that less than 9% of patients reported any adverse event and the most commonly reported events were bleeding or bruising. Other adverse events associated with acupuncture include temporary discomfort at the site of needle insertion and even less common, feeling faint or experiencing fatigue. More serious adverse events such as pneumothorax (air entering the chest cavity) are extremely rare.
Following Clean Needle Technique protocols on handling and inserting needles properly further improves the safety of acupuncture. In this practice, only disposable needles sterilized by the manufacturer are used to further diminish risk.
*Witt C, Pach D, Brinkhaus B , et al. Safety of Acupuncture: Results of a Prospective Observational Study with 229,230 Patients and Introduction of a Medical Information and Consent Form Forsch Komplementmed. 2009;16:91–97. Melchart D, Weidenhammer W, Streng A, et al. Prospective Investigation of Adverse Effects of Acupuncture in 97 733 Patients. Arch Intern Med. 2004;164(1):104-105.
What types of conditions can acupuncture treat?
When most people think about what acupuncture can treat, pain would probably be at the top of their lists. However, acupuncture helps people with many other conditions, including:
depression or anxiety,
turning breech presentation,
heavy or painful periods,
frequent and urgent urination,
nausea & vomiting
There are a lot more things acupuncture can help. The World Health Organization (WHO) has compiled a list of conditions that research has show can be effectively treated with acupuncture:
How many treatments will I need?
The number of treatments needed will be determined after the initial health history intake. It will depend on factors such as the condition being treated and how long you've had the condition. Acute conditions may need only 1 to 3 treatments. Chronic conditions usually require more treatments, often 5-15 treatments. Some deep-rooted conditions might require more.
How often do I need to schedule treatments?
In China, patients often get acupuncture treatments daily, but for most American patients this isn't feasible. For most patients, I recommend starting with treatments at least twice a week to make quicker progress. The reason for this: the effects of acupuncture are cumulative and spacing treatments too far apart diminishes the effectiveness. Other than having acupuncture for general well-being (or "tune-up" treatments), once a week would be the absolute minimum frequency until the condition is under control.
Each person is different. For some people, their symptoms begin to subside while getting a treatment. For other people, the effects take longer to develop. Some people need multiple treatments before noticing a significant change. Typically, patients report noticing a difference within the first 24 hours after their treatment with an improvement in their condition most noticeable the next day. Regardless of the condition, the vast majority feel relaxed during and after a treatment.
How long does it take before I notice any changes or improvements?
Again, each person is different. I cannot stress this enough. It is hard for me to predict what the experience and the sensations will be for any one person, but I can give a few examples that my patients have told me they experienced during and after treatments:
changes in the energy in their body
feeling the Qi flowing in their body,
a heavy sensation in the limbs or around the points
a light sensation as if they were floating or their limbs were floating
relaxed (frequently to the point of falling asleep!)
an electric or shooting sensation along the channel
I have even had a few patients say that the feeling they had after the treatment was what they imagined an out-of-body experience might be like; they felt light or euphoric. As one the patients further explained, he felt "like dancing" because he felt so light on his feet! Most people have a pleasant experience.
What does it feel like while one gets an acupuncture treatment? What is the Qi sensation like?
What is moxa and what do you do with it?
Moxa is mostly made up of Artemesia vulgaris, or mugwort, but may be combined with other herbs. Moxa comes in many forms and grades. Acupuncturist heat moxa over acupuncture points to warm and stimulate the points.
Moxa is safe and many people find moxibustion (the burning of moxa) relaxing and pleasant. However, some types (especially coarser grades of Chinese moxa) have a strong odor that lingers in fabric and may leave localized brown residue on the skin or clothes. For treatments with moxibustion, I recommend wearing clothing that can be washed after the treatment. Great care is used to minimize risks, but with any heated or smoldering moxa there is the potential risk of burns or scars.
What is cupping?
Cupping is not specific to Chinese Medicine; it's used in many health care traditions around the world. Modern cupping uses either glass or plastic cups to create a suction against the skin. Cups may be applied at specific regions and acupuncture points, or they could be slid along a region of the body or along acupuncture channels, for therapeutic purpose.
Cupping often leaves red or purple marks on the skin for a few hours up to a few days. As a general rule, the greater the stagnation in the body, the darker and longer the marks remain visible.