Originating from China more than 2,500 years ago, acupuncture is one of the oldest methods of traditional Chinese medicine; it is an alternative, holistic medicine used for stroke rehabilitation and to treat headaches, menstrual cramps, lower back pain, and various joint conditions. Gradually, acupuncture is growing in popularity in the West – for instance, a 2007 study revealed that more than 20 million Americans had used acupuncture, and that figure is ever-increasing around the world.
Below, we ask what acupuncture is, how acupuncture works and the benefits of acupuncture.
Despite popular belief, acupuncture is not solely the practice of inserting fine needles into different areas of the body; instead, it is an entire medical practice, and one of the methods used in treatment is needle insertion. The purpose of acupuncture is to realign the body’s natural flow of energy or chi. Despite traditional methods, it’s needle treatment that, mostly, has been widely adopted in Western alternative medicine – primarily for pain relief. As well as its physical benefits, acupuncture can also help to reduce stress and anxiety and, therefore, may improve mental health and overall happiness.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, you will only be at your optimum health when your body’s chi is balanced. Chi is thought to flow through pathways or meridians in the body, and when flowing evenly, your energy is balanced. However, your body can naturally become imbalanced when you experience stress or illness, in which case you need to rebalance your energy. There are 350 acupuncture points in the body; by inserting fine needles into the body, your acupuncturist can manipulate the flow of energy and help to rebalance your energy stream. Acupuncture is a highly personalised treatment and is never the name for two people; there are thousands of combinations.
While balancing chi is the principal aim of acupuncture in traditional Chinese medicine, in other parts of the world, the principles of acupuncture are firmly based on neuroscientific theories. Most Western acupuncturists see acupuncture as a method of stimulating nerves, muscles and connective tissue in the body as a means to increase blood flow and trigger the release of adenosine – a natural pain killer in the body’s cells. Adenosine is released after an injury to inhibit nerve signals and, therefore, reduce the feeling of pain. Acupuncture manually stimulates the release of adenosine to relieve chronic pain.
Despite the use of needles in acupuncture, the treatment is not painful as the needles are incredibly fine and, therefore, pierce the skin with little effort. You may feel a tingling sensation but nothing more. Typically, acupuncture sessions last around 30 minutes; however, rather than having just the one session, you may need up to 12 sessions over the course of several months for the best results.
Acupuncture can be used to treat a variety of conditions; it is commonly used to treat muscle pain and spasms, chronic back pain, headaches and migraines, joint pain (e.g. knee pain) and osteoarthritis.
As well as its physical benefits, acupuncture research suggests that acupuncture can improve stress, depression, and anxiety. In an interview with Scientific American, in which he discussed the benefits of acupuncture, acupuncturist Hugh MacPherson said: “Strong evidence exists that acupuncture is effective for chronic pain conditions. For depression, we have evidence that acupuncture is a useful adjunct to conventional care. In one recent trial patients on antidepressants who received acupuncture did significantly better than those who just took medication. Patients who received counselling in addition to their medication received a similar benefit to the acupuncture group.”
But some disagree. “Most studies examining the effectiveness of acupuncture are not rigorous. Those that are more rigorous fail to show that acupuncture is more than a placebo in managing depression,” comments Edzard Ernst, former Professor of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter.
While acupuncture remains a topic of controversy, as with all alternative medicine, the treatment has had its successes and failures, and you won’t know whether it will work for you until you give it a go.
There have been various studies conducted over the years that explore the benefits of acupuncture. Below, find out how acupuncture has been found to improve health and what it could do for you.
A review of more than 11 separate studies in 2009 concluded that acupuncture could contribute to reducing chronic head pain in the form of persistent headaches and migraines. Looking at various clinical trials that compared genuine and placebo acupuncture treatments, results show that patients receiving real acupuncture treatment experienced fewer headaches or much less intense headaches.
Relieves Chronic Pain
In 2012, a study completed by the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, which looked at clinical trials involving more than 17,000 patients, determined that acupuncture can effectively help to relieve chronic pain. Areas of relief include joint pain, including arthritis – joint inflammation and stiffness – as well as muscle aches and back pain.
If you suffer from insomnia, you’re in luck. In 2009, an analysis completed by the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine concluded that acupuncture could improve sleep and is more effective than taking medications. Better still, acupuncture is a natural remedy and, therefore, much better for you.
After numerous studies, the National Cancer Institute concluded that acupuncture could boost recovery after cancer treatments such as chemotherapy. The Institute found that acupuncture can help to improve immunity and increase platelet count, too. Importantly, the study also showed that patients who undertook acupuncture experienced the adverse effects of chemotherapy, such as nausea, to a lesser degree and had a better quality of life than those that didn’t have the treatment.
Clinical trials show that acupuncture can help to relieve anxiety. Like most alternative medicine used to treat mental health disorders, there is little scientific evidence proving that acupuncture decreases anxiety or why it may improve anxiety; however, it’s certainly worth a try and beats medication.
Whether you’re suffering from chronic pain or feel tense and anxious, acupuncture may be the relief you’ve been seeking. Despite its critics, research suggests that acupuncture has an array of both physical and mental health benefits. Results vary from person-to-person, but it’s certainly worth a try.