Frequently Asked Questions
Does acupuncture hurt?
The vast majority of patients do not consider acupuncture a painful procedure. Some patients feel a slight 'Qi' sensation when the needle is inserted: most feel nothing at all. These 'Qi sensations' range from warmth or tingling, to a brief ache or heaviness in the area being needled. Qi sensations are generally only felt on one or two of the acupuncture points. They indicate favorable results from the acupuncture treatment, as Qi has been strongly contacted. By and large patients describe these sensations as fleeting and the treatment experience as deeply relaxing. In fact, many patients find acupuncture so relaxing that they fall asleep during treatment and go into a dreamy state induced by the endorphins released during treatments.
How does acupuncture work?
Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on an energetic model rather than the biochemical model of Western medicine. The ancient Chinese recognized the vital energy inherent in all living things. This energy is called Qi (pronounced chee). Over thousands of years of practice, the ancient physicians discovered a system of cyclic energy flowing in the human body along specific pathways called channels or meridians. Each channel is associated with a particular physiological system and internal organ. When the Qi in the pathways becomes obstructed, deficient or excessive, disease occurs. The corresponding organs and muscles do not get their necessary flow of energy and nutrients to properly perform their physiological functions.
The channels communicate with the surface of the body at specific locations called acupuncture points. Needles inserted in these points influence the Qi that flows to internal organs. Acupuncture can also affect specific areas of pain associated with injury or trauma. A needle inserted near the area of overstrained muscle or tendon will adjust the flow of Qi and nutrients to that area, thereby reducing pain and accelerating the healing process.
The acupuncture points have various functions, like stopping pain, stimulating immune function, or resolving phlegm (for coughs or runny noses). There are even points with empirical functions, like treating rashes or constipation. Other points are chosen with regard to location; for example, using points on the shoulder, knee or back to treat pain. Using a system of pulse and tongue diagnosis, coupled with findings obtained by inquiring about related symptoms and physical exam, the acupuncturist determines the pathology affecting Qi (energy) flow to internal organs, muscles, skin and joints. The acupuncturist will then develop a treatment protocol to resolve the patient's condition.
From western biomedical research, we understand that acupuncture influences a number of physiological functions such as release of endorphins (natural pain killing chemicals) by the brain, restoration of proper circulation in diseased areas, and stimulation of hormonal glands and immune system function. Research into the effects of acupuncture is still young. Scientists discover more information every year that helps us understand more fully how acupuncture works.
Are the needles safe?
Yes. Acupuncturists use sterile, disposable needles. They are used once and then disposed of in biohazard containers. These containers are sent to a medical waste management company for proper disposal according to federal laws and regulations.
Are there any side effects to acupuncture?
One of the reasons that acupuncture has been so well embraced in the West may have to do with its low rate of side effects. "For a medical procedure, you almost cannot get anything that is more benign," says James Dowden, Executive Administrator of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture. "About the worst thing that can happen is you won't get better."
In it's landmark, 1997 Consensus Statement on Acupuncture, the NIH (National Institutes of Health) reported, "One of the advantages of acupuncture is that the incidence of adverse effects is substantially lower than that of many drugs or other accepted medical procedures used for the same conditions." (Acupuncture. NIH Consens Statement 1997 Nov 3-5; 15 (5): 9.)
In 2001, the British Medical Journal (vol. 323, no.7311) published the results of two large-scale studies showing that the benefits of acupuncture far outweigh negative side effects of treatment. The few post-treatment complaints were minor and short-lived, ranging from bruising to needle pain and lasting less than a week, with no serious adverse events noted. In an accompanying editorial, the journal concluded that complications from acupuncture are "remarkably rare and transient" [ranging from 0.1 to 0.7 percent] especially when compared with the rate of adverse drug reactions or prescribing errors in primary care medicine, estimated at 0.5 to 6 percent.
What training is required to become an acupuncturist?
Becoming a licensed acupuncturist in the United States isn’t easy. It requires you to complete a four-year master’s program, which includes a rigorous curriculum of Eastern Medicine, Western, Biosciences, and Herbology. After completing a degree in Chinese Medicine, each state requires a licensing examination before an acupuncturist can practice in that state. Just like all licensed health care providers, many hours continuing education is required each year to maintain ones state license.
Can acupuncture help me even if I feel healthy?
Yes, absolutely. Many patients come in for regular maintenance treatments to stay in 'tip-top' condition so they can fully enjoy life. Acupuncture is a powerful preventative measure to keep patients healthy throughout the year. Acupuncturists see subtle signs of disease processes at work before symptoms begin to interfere with daily life. Chinese medicine effectively addresses these issues, preventing future problems from occurring. Because acupuncture treatments are so deeply relaxing, many patients find regular, maintenance treatments beneficial for stress relief.
How many treatments will I need?
In Chinese Medicine, we speak in terms of courses of treatments. One course is considered ten to twelve acupuncture treatments or weeks of herbal therapy. Clinical response to acupuncture treatment is individual, but there are some generalities acupuncturists expect. Some people will notice improvement after a single treatment. Others take longer to respond as acupuncture requires a cumulative effect. Most patients begin noticing changes within one to three treatments. After five to seven visits both the patient and the practitioner should feel confident that the treatment is effective. Acute conditions may be fairly well resolved at this point. Chronic conditions take longer. Excepting continual, longstanding problems (such as allergies), most conditions are resolved within a course to fifteen treatments.
How frequently are visits spaced?
Generally patients are seen on a weekly basis. For some acute conditions, such as severe pain or extremely itchy, uncomfortable rashes, it may be necessary to come twice a week for the first two to three weeks, until symptoms are contained. As the condition improves, visits are spaced farther apart: every two, and later three weeks or monthly. On average, patients come weekly for about eight visits, and then begin decreasing the frequency of visits as symptoms become more intermittent and later disappear.
Once the condition has resolved, many patients choose to continue treatment for maintenance and preventative care. These maintenance visits can be monthly or quarterly, or semi-annually, depending on the patient's goals.
Do I need to keep coming after my symptoms are gone?
Generally speaking, once symptoms no longer occur, a clinical cure is achieved. Depending on the nature and history of the disorder, future treatments are usually not necessary to prevent recurrence. Exceptions are for chronic conditions that tend to recur, such as back pain and allergic problems.
What are maintenance tune-ups?
Some patients like to come on a monthly or quarterly basis for preventative care. These types of treatments are nicknamed 'tune-ups'. Just as we get regular maintenance on our cars, our bodies need regular maintenance to keep them healthy, too. Acupuncturists see subtle signs of disease processes and can address these issues in a few number of treatments, thus avoiding the development of more serious health problems that require a longer series to treat. These preventative care visits are especially important for patients with long-standing, chronic conditions that tend to recur, such as back pain or allergy problems . Because acupuncture treatments are so deeply relaxing, many patients find regular maintenance treatments beneficial for stress relief.
What if I can't come for regular acupuncture treatments?
Herbal therapy is an effective option for those who cannot come regularly for acupuncture visits. Some patients opt for Chinese herbal formulas instead of acupuncture treatment. Combining the modalities of herbs and acupuncture creates a synergist treatment pair, each increasing the power of the other. Herbal therapy can fill in for the interval between acupuncture treatments, allowing some patients to decrease the frequency of acupuncture treatment.
TCM (Traditional Chinese Medical) herbalists use herbs instead of drug therapy to address problems internally. In fact, many conditions, such as gynecological problems, dermatology, and immune system disorders require herbs for effective treatment. Pain conditions require regular acupuncture treatments for resolution of symptoms.
What should I wear for the acupuncture treatments?
Wear loose fitted, comfortable clothing. You might want to bring a tank top and shorts to allow the acupuncturist easy access to the body. Most of the points needled are on the torso and limbs, below the elbows and knees. Exceptions are for pain, where local points will be used in the affected area, such as the shoulder.
Should I keep my appointment if I'm sick?
Yes. Acupuncture and Chinese herbs are highly effective for treating acute conditions, such as colds and flus, stomach viruses and headaches. Patients report immediate improvement in symptoms after acupuncture treatment or commencing herbal therapy. An oft-repeated phrase by happy patients is, "As soon as I started taking the herbs I felt better!"
Many patients call immediately to schedule a treatment when they first notice cold or flu symptoms. These include healthcare practitioners who don't want to get their patients sick, business professionals who are too busy for a sick day or two, and patients who are chronically ill and want to 'get this one over with, quickly'.
So if you're sick, call your acupuncturist and make and appointment. If you have an appointment scheduled, keep it. If you're concerned about being contagious to your practitioner, request an herbal consultation instead of a treatment.