Your Guide to Understanding Acupuncture

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Acupuncture is an ancient, complex, holistic medical system that aims to promote health and resolve illness by creating  greater balance in the body and mind. It’s often classified as a form of Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM, which includes practices like tai chi and qi gong.

Acupuncture is rooted in several  key concepts including “qi” (the energy we derive from the air we breathe) and “yin yang”acupuncture-yin-yang (a state of balance symbolized by a black and white circle divided by an S-shaped line). A core element of acupuncture involves the use of fine needles to stimulate specific points on the body. But needles are only part of the picture: acupuncturists often also rely on nutrition therapy, herbal medicine if applicable, and in some cases, dietary supplements.

What is the history of acupuncture?

Acupuncture was first developed in China between 2,000 and 4,000 years ago and has been used throughout the world for centuries. The system didn’t gain popularity in the U.S. until the 1970s, thanks to pioneers like Miriam Lee.  The Singapore-born nurse, midwife and acupuncturist was arrested in 1974 for practicing medicine without a license in Palo Alto, California. Thanks to the protests of her grateful patients, the state of California legalized acupuncture and Lee went on to establish the Acupuncture Association of America to promote public education and to guide legislation and research.

Today, acupuncturists must complete three to four years of master’s degree-level education in a program accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM). Practitioners also must pass examinations in the foundations of Oriental Medicine, acupuncture and biomedicine.

How does acupuncture work?

Acupuncture stimulates the nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord known as the peripheral nervous system. During a session, acupuncturists insert very fine needles into specific points on the body known as neurovascular nodes. These nodes contain a high concentration of nerve fibers, fine blood vessels, lymphatic vessels, and cells. Practitioners believe that these points correspond to diseases or conditions in different organs, and stimulating those points can relieve pain or treat a variety of problems.

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Acupuncturists also believe that inserting these fine needles into specific points allows the body to enter a deeply relaxed state conducive to healing that’s known as the parasympathetic state.  The parasympathetic nervous system is the body’s “rest and digest” mode that allows the heart rate to drop, the muscles to relax, and other body functions to slow down (in contrast to the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” features).

It promotes circulation in different areas of the body, affecting major systems including the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, circulatory, endocrine, immune systems and more. When placed in a point that’s blocked, the tiny pricks of the thin needles stimulate the body’s ability to heal that spot and surrounding tissue. Stimulating the acupuncture points also sends signals to the brain, which releases “feel good” chemicals like endorphins and norepinephrine.

What conditions can acupuncture be beneficial for?

Numerous studies have found that acupuncture can be effective for treating a range of painful conditions. People seek out acupuncture for:

  • Low back pain
  • Joint, nerve, and muscle pain and inflammation
  • Poor circulation
  • Digestive issues including irritable bowel syndrome
  • Migraines
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Women’s health issues including painful periods and polycystic ovary syndrome

Does acupuncture hurt?

You may feel a little prick and pressure on the skin when the needle is placed, but the sensation typically goes away quickly. Some people report feeling a pulsing sensation while the needle is doing its work, but generally, the experience is relatively gentle and painless.

How does acupuncture fit into primary care?

At One Medical, integrative providers like acupuncturists work in a complementary way with other providers who focus on more traditional Western medicine. Acupuncturists often collaborate with patients’ primary care providers to fully understand the scope of each unique problem and to create the most comprehensive, beneficial treatment plan. If an acupuncturist feels there is additional work that can be addressed another way, they might refer the patient to another provider, always communicating about supplement and drug interactions if necessary.

How long will it take for me to notice a benefit?

After an initial intake evaluation, practitioners typically develop a plan with patients and evolve the treatment as symptoms change. While each patient’s time frame for healing is unique, many experience an immediate feeling of relaxation during their first session. Read Acupuncture Success Stories to find out how it helped.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

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