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Acupuncture: Effective Drug-Free Therapy for Diverse Conditions

Acupuncture: Effective Drug-Free Therapy for Diverse Conditions

Acupuncture has become popular in the Western world in recent decades. Originating in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the practice of stimulating human systems through needles dates back 2,500 (1) to 4,000 years ago (2). Acupuncture as a therapy has been adopted worldwide over the centuries. Its longevity is a sign of its versatility and the number of people positively impacted over the years. 


Typically used as a complementary therapy in the West, acupuncture affects systems in the body that have broad, positive health impacts that bolster the effects of primary treatments—similar to IV therapy, chiropractic care, massage therapy, and other drugless modalities. Acupuncture has proven its efficiency over time, providing a drug-free yet potent way to stimulate the body to increase its own health.



How Acupuncture Works


Research shows that acupuncture works mechanically and biochemically, though more mechanisms of action may be discovered as this fascinating modality is still being studied. Mechanically, the shallow insertion of the needle into the skin at particular points in the body stimulates connective tissues and nerves. The needle alone in these acupuncture points can cause a ripple of local and remote reactions in the body. However, twisting the needle in tiny motions, called needlingcan increase the strength of the response. 


When nerves are stimulated through acupuncture, it also creates a cascade of chemical reactions that affect communication molecules, cells of the immune system, and hormones of various kinds. Stimulated immune cells reduce inflammation system-wide and support the healing of tissues throughout the body. Acupuncture stimulation also increases circulation to the area, which increases oxygenation of the tissues - speeding the healing of damaged cells and tissues. Endorphins, one of the hormones released by acupuncture, cause a feeling of pleasure while dampening pain and reducing the physical effects of stress. The release of endorphins and other chemicals in the body can significantly boost mood, relieving anxiety and depression. 


Notably, the mechanical and biochemical reactions stimulated by acupuncture affect multiple broad systems in the human body: immune, cardiovascular, adrenal, endocrine, digestive, and skin, as well as assisting in detoxification. These systems control or affect many other automatic responses in the body, so acupuncture's potency and efficiency result from a domino-like series of reactions all started by tiny pinpricks!



History of Acupuncture in a Nutshell


Because acupuncture has been around for many millennia, there is a lot of information about it. In the last few decades, researchers have studied acupuncture intensively, attempting to define the biological underpinnings for its effectiveness. The information in this article is not exhaustive but explains the testimonial (anecdotal) nature of its origins alongside some recent research evidence that verifies the health claims of acupuncture. From a 10,000-foot perspective, science is steadily verifying what ancient health practitioners worked out long ago without the help of microscopes, MRIs, blood work, and other technologies.


Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which includes the practice of acupuncture, is a whole philosophy of health and the root of various historical therapies. "TCM appears as a philosophy that attempts to integrate mind, body, health and disease prevention by diverse practices” (2).


The earliest TCM writing has been traced to "The Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic," with debated dates of origin (3). These writings explain that acupuncture is designed to manipulate qi through the placement of very tiny needles inserted shallowly into the skin. Qi (also written as "chi") is the breath of life or life force that flows through the body in streams called meridians (2). "Specific acupuncture points were also outlined in this document, which showed practitioners the needle placement for stimulating the meridians to achieve specific health goals. According to these ancient health practitioners, very thin needles (placed in particular spots and twirled slightly), now called acupuncture, could reduce symptoms and alleviate the negative consequences of numerous health conditions by restoring the flow of stagnant or blocked qi. As mentioned previously, modern research is discovering various mechanisms of action and has proven many specific benefits of acupuncture.



Benefits of Acupuncture


The effects of acupuncture therapy are difficult to summarize due to the enormous amount of literature available and the variety of results. Indeed, individuals have unique health histories and physical makeup that propel acupuncturists to apply unique combinations of needle placement for each person, making it difficult to compare results across many people. However, over time, researchers have seen consistent positive results in several areas:


1. Affects several systems in the human body - As mentioned above, acupuncture works by stimulating nerves and connective tissue which create a cascade of physical and chemical reactions that affect communication molecules  (neurotransmitters), immune cells (cytokines), and hormones in various systems in the body: immune, cardiovascular, adrenal, digestive, skin, and detoxifying. Each of these different broad systems goes on to make changes in different parts of the body. For example, an immune system stimulated by acupuncture can increase the activity of natural killer (NK) cells, which lowers pain levels and reduces stress reactions (4).

 

2. Reduces feelings of stress and anxiety - The most commonly reported effect of acupuncture therapy is a decrease in anxiety and stress levels. While acupuncture patients come in to address other health conditions, they often leave with a profound sense of calm. Peace and calm should not be a surprising result of acupuncture because this therapy is known to release endorphins and pain-relieving molecules (5). 


3. Offers pain relief - Much research has centered on pain relief for different kinds of pain. Acupuncture can allow a patient to reduce or eliminate pain medications (opioids) - a boon to those who can't tolerate pain medications, don't want to take pain meds long-term or want to reduce the dosage of pain medications (10). Acupuncture has been proven effective in relieving many different kinds of pain, such as nerve, muscular, cancer-related, myofascial, arthritic, fibromyalgia-related, bowel-related, pelvic, neck, and back pain (1).


4. Reduces nausea and vomiting- Cancer researchers have had some reliable trials showing that acupuncture can relieve the gastrointestinal disturbances associated with cancer treatments (1). Additionally, acupuncture reduced self-rated nausea levels (morning sickness) during pregnancy (6).


5. Improves blood flow to targeted areas, including ovaries (7), muscles, skin (8), myofascial tissue, and nerves (9).


6. Can be combined with other treatments - Acupuncture can work with other therapies, making a more significant impact than using each treatment alone. For example, acupuncture can be used as a secondary or complementary therapy to chemotherapy, helping to reduce chemo-related nausea.



Conditions Treated by Acupuncture


Beyond these benefits, the list of specific conditions that can be treated by acupuncture is quite long! To simplify, there are many categories of conditions that benefit from acupuncture (11): 


  • Digestion/Gastrointestinal

  • Mental/emotional

  • Respiratory

  • Gynecological

  • Musculoskeletal

  • Neurological

  • Allergic and Immune system


Some specific health conditions include (1):


  • Inability to achieve pregnancy 

  • Nicotine addiction and withdrawal symptoms

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome

  • Menopausal hot flashes

  • Mental depression

  • Seasonal (pollen) allergies

  • Female bladder issues (incontinence)



Variation on the Theme - Electroacupuncture


Electroacupuncture is a relatively recent addition to acupuncture, where a tiny amount of electrical current is conducted through the acupuncture needle. This small change can increase the strength of the response, increasing acupuncture's effectiveness. The propagation of minute electrical signals through the acupuncture needle is typically felt as a pulsing or throbbing sensation in the tissues around the needle. For those suffering from pain, bodily injuries, or musculoskeletal issues, this additional electrical stimulation can provide relief that other therapies have been unable to. Mouse studies have shown that the immune system was greatly affected by the hormone dopamine (known as another "feel good" hormone) and electroacupuncture (12).



What to Expect From an Acupuncture Appointment


In California, acupuncturists are licensed through the Department of Consumer Affairs Acupuncture Board, which ensures practitioners have, at minimum, a particular set of skills and a certain number of hours of practice before getting their license (13). There are also standards for the equipment—such as using single-use needles—and how to clean and maintain any acupuncture-related devices.


The acupuncturist will take a medical history and familiarize themselves with the patient's unique set of conditions. Knowing the patient's circumstances and history helps the practitioner customize the treatment and alerts them to avoid specific procedures or acupuncture points.


Patients are asked to wear loose clothing so the practitioner can access the body to place the needles. If large areas of the body are needed for the needle placement, sheets can be strategically draped to preserve modesty. Typically, the patient lies on their front or backside and rests throughout the treatment, which can take 30 minutes to an hour. Post-appointment, hydration is encouraged.


People who have never tried acupuncture may wonder if the needles hurt. The needles are very thin and inserted very close to the skin's surface. Tiny acupuncture needles do not feel like the needles used to withdraw blood, which are much larger. Some sensation is felt when the needle is inserted: some people feel a pinching sensation, and some feel a slight sting. Women who are experiencing their menstrual cycle may be more sensitive during that time, so they may wait until their period is over to get treatment. There can also be a sensation of heat or pulsing, with the after-effect being a flood of feel-good hormones (endorphins).



Safety Profile


Complications are rare with established and licensed acupuncturists, so visiting a reputable, experienced, licensed acupuncturist who can execute acupuncture correctly and maintain a clean environment is essential. If issues do arise with an inexperienced or unethical practitioner, they typically center around non-sterile needles or a lack of the skill needed to deliver the treatment properly (1).


Some people may need to first have to have an examination or proceed with caution when receiving acupuncture. For example, specific acupuncture points are not advised for pregnant women, so please tell the acupuncturist if you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant. Also, people with diabetes experiencing severe neuropathy (nerve damage) may not be able to give good feedback to the acupuncturist due to the inability to feel pain in their extremities. 



Are You Thinking of Trying Acupuncture?


Temecula Center for Integrative Medicine embraces many drug-free, potent modalities, such as acupuncture. We would be happy to partner with you and determine if acupuncture can increase your health or help reduce your pain. As with any other service you receive at TCIM, our highly qualified, experienced team and licensed acupuncturist will work with you to create and implement an individualized plan to improve and optimize your health.  Would you like to get to your next level of health through the potent effects of expertly administered acupuncture?


 

Jonathan Vellinga, M.D.

Jonathan Vellinga, MD is an Internal Medicine practitioner with a broad interest in medicine. He graduated Summa cum laude from Weber State University in Clinical Laboratory Sciences and completed his medical degree from the Medical College of Wisconsin.​


Upon graduation from medical school, he completed his Internal Medicine residency at the University of Michigan. Dr. Vellinga is board-certified with the American Board of Internal Medicine and a member of the Institute for Functional Medicine.


951-383-4333


 

Sources


1. Acupuncture: What you need to know [Internet]. NCCIH. Available from: https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/acupuncture-what-you-need-to-know


2. Eigenschink M, Dearing L, Dablander TE, Maier J, Sitte HH. A critical examination of the main premises of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Wien Klin

Wochenschr. 2020 May;132(9-10):260-273. doi: 10.1007/s00508-020-01625-w. Epub 2020 Mar 20. PMID: 32198544; PMCID: PMC7253514.


3. Curran J. The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine. BMJ. 2008 Apr 5;336(7647):777. doi: 10.1136/bmj.39527.472303.4E. PMCID: PMC2287209.


4. Wang M, Liu W, Ge J, Liu S. The immunomodulatory mechanisms for acupuncture practice. Front Immunol. 2023 Apr 6;14:1147718. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2023.1147718. PMID: 37090714; PMCID: PMC10117649.


5. Han JS. Acupuncture and endorphins. Neurosci Lett. 2004 May 6;361(1-3):258-61. doi: 10.1016/j.neulet.2003.12.019. PMID: 15135942.


6. Sridharan K, Sivaramakrishnan G. Interventions for treating nausea and vomiting in pregnancy: a network meta-analysis and trial sequential analysis of randomized clinical trials. Expert Rev Clin Pharmacol. 2018 Nov;11(11):1143-1150. doi: 10.1080/17512433.2018.1530108. Epub 2018 Oct 5. PMID: 30261764.


7. Lim CE, Wong WS. Current evidence of acupuncture on polycystic ovarian syndrome. Gynecol Endocrinol. 2010 Jun;26(6):473-8. doi: 10.3109/09513591003686304. PMID: 20230329.


8. Kim SY, Min S, Lee H, Cheon S, Zhang X, Park JY, Song TJ, Park HJ. Changes of Local Blood Flow in Response to Acupuncture Stimulation: A Systematic Review. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2016;2016:9874207. doi: 10.1155/2016/9874207. Epub 2016 Jun 14. PMID: 27403201; PMCID: PMC4923553.


9. Kubo K, Iizuka Y, Yajima H, Takayama M, Takakura N. Changes in Blood Circulation of the Tendons and Heart Rate Variability During and After Acupuncture. Med Acupunct. 2020 Apr 1;32(2):99-107. doi: 10.1089/acu.2019.1397. Epub 2020 Apr 16. PMID: 32351663; PMCID: PMC7187978.


10. Nielsen A, Dusek JA, Taylor-Swanson L, Tick H. Acupuncture Therapy as an Evidence-Based Nonpharmacologic Strategy for Comprehensive Acute Pain Care: The Academic Consortium Pain Task Force White Paper Update. Pain Medicine [Internet]. 2022 Jun 17;23(9):1582–1612. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35380733/


11. Acupuncture [Internet]. Johns Hopkins Medicine. 2024. Available from: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/acupuncture


12. Zhu H. Acupoints Initiate the Healing Process. Med Acupunct. 2014 Oct 1;26(5):264-270. doi: 10.1089/acu.2014.1057. PMID: 25352943; PMCID: PMC4202904.


13. State of California Acupuncture Board, Department of Consumer Affairs, State of California. Welcome - California Acupuncture Board [Internet]. 2014. Available from: https://www.acupuncture.ca.gov/


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