Bay area resident Scott McCallister felt like he’d tried everything for his lower back pain. But as a physician, he was hesitant to venture outside the boundaries of conventional medicine. “As a sort of old-school medical professional myself, I had never really considered acupuncture as a therapeutic option,” he said. However, his frustration and pain led him to try something new and book an appointment with Michelle Kuroda, a One Medical acupuncturist. “Within minutes of meeting Michelle, I was reassured that the treatment she was proposing just might work,” he said, “It did–less than an hour later I felt great.”
McCallister’s experience isn’t unique. According to the National Health Statistics Reports, acupuncture use in the U.S. nearly doubled between 2002 and 2012, and according to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, the vast majority of those people went to an acupuncturist for pain relief.
McCallister says his back hurt for years because of sacroillitis, a condition that can make climbing stairs, running or even prolonged standing difficult. But after just one 50-minute treatment, he walked out of Kuroda’s Noe Valley office pain-free.
Although acupuncture is still considered alternative medicine in the U.S., people like McCallister have been relying on it to achieve their health goals for centuries. And based on its success, many more are turning to acupuncture for everything from pain relief to stress management and more.
The History of Acupuncture
Developed in China between 2,000 and 4,000 years ago, acupuncture has been used throughout the world as a holistic medical system to prevent, diagnose and treat a variety of illnesses and to maintain or boost overall health.
Often classified as a form of Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM (which includes practices like tai chi and qi gong), acupuncture is a complex system that starts with a detailed intake of a patient’s complaints and an examination of the entire body to look for root causes. The goal is to create greater balance in the body to promote health and resolve illness.
This is a complex, holistic system rooted in several important philosophies and a variety of key concepts including “qi” and “yin yang.”
In Western medicine (also called allopathic medicine), the word “qi” is usually considered synonymous with “energy,” but ancient Chinese texts refer to “da qi” as the air we breathe into our lungs and “qi” is what we extract from it. Acupuncture helps allow qi to move freely in the body and works to remove anything that may be blocking it and causing disease.
Acupuncture also operates on the concept of yin yang, symbolized by the black and white circle divided by an S-shaped line. This image captures the concept of yin yang, which is a state of balance.
Even though acupuncture has existed for thousands of years, it didn’t pick up popularity in the U.S. until the 1970s, thanks to pioneers like Miriam Lee, a nurse, midwife and acupuncturist originally from Singapore. She settled in Palo Alto, California and was arrested in 1974 for practicing medicine without a license. Thanks to the protests of her grateful patients, the state government 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). Bianchi said her training covered Chinese medical theory, acupuncture, herbal studies, biomedicine, physiology, pathology, and biology. Practitioners also must pass examinations in the foundations of Oriental Medicine, acupuncture and biomedicine.
The Many Uses of Acupuncture
Many people seek acupuncture to relieve pain or reduce inflammation. It can also help relax tight muscles, releasing the pressure on joints and nerves, and promote blood flow, which can help with healing. Generally, the idea is to restore balance in the body.
“In acupuncture, we look to regulate this balance within the person by stimulating different points,” says Jeannie Bianchi, a One Medical acupuncturist in San Francisco. “For example, a migraine headache is considered to be a sign of too much heat rising in the body. By stimulating certain points, we can redirect the heat and root the yang down.”
McCallister quickly found that the approach was a game-changer in his condition, despite his initial skepticism. “Since I had never seen an acupuncturist before, I was initially dismissive that it could really help me,” he says. “When it did, I came away with a new outlook.”
McCallister’s experience is representative of what Bianchi often observes in her own practice. “I’ve seen acupuncture be effective for musculoskeletal pain, digestive issues like IBS, insomnia, anxiety, and a host of women’s health issues including painful periods, PCOS, and more,” Bianchi says. “Essentially, any condition that is worsened by stress could probably see improvement through acupuncture, if not total resolution.”
Acupuncture is also believed to be beneficial for mental health by stimulating the release of oxytocin, the hormone that regulates the parasympathetic nervous system.
And there’s more to acupuncture than just needles. “We also rely on dietary therapy, herbal medicine if applicable, and in some cases, supplements,” Bianchi says.
How Acupuncture Works
Just like a good massage can relax sore muscles right away, acupuncture can have an immediate effect. “It’s a body therapy, making it very relaxing,” Bianchi says. “Inserting the fine needles at specific points puts the body in a deep parasympathetic state that’s conducive to healing.”
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).
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 sensory fibers, fine blood vessels, lymphatic vessels, and cells. Practitioners of acupuncture 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.
The patient may feel a little prick and pressure on the skin when the needle is placed, but that sensation tends to go away quickly. Some people report feeling a pulsing sensation while the needle is doing its work, but many are surprised by how gentle the experience is. “I thought I was going to have the same sensation like when they stick a needle in you to draw blood,” says Chicago resident Collie Hunt, who recently began regular acupuncture treatment. “But the acupuncture needles are so much finer–it was only the slightest prick. And the doctor is able to put them in there and they don’t hurt and I get the benefit.”
Acupuncture stimulates the nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord known as the peripheral nervous system. 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.
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 benefit of relaxation during their first session.
In McCallister’s case, the effect was definitely quick. “When I sat up from my very first treatment, I felt remarkably better. I was amazed as I walked out of the office and off down the street!”
Integrating Acupuncture Into Primary Care
Acupuncturists like Bianchi and Kuroda 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.
“The strength of the model at One Medical Group lies in the fact that we work as a team,” Bianchi says. “If I’ve gotten a patient 50 percent of the way through his or her symptoms, but I feel there is additional work that could be addressed another way, I might refer him or her to one of our other providers. And as a treatment team, we always communicate about supplement and drug interactions if necessary.”