Acupuncture: An Ancient Treatment for a Current Problem

Acupuncture is widely understood to be a non-traditional (not a traditional part of western medicine) treatment option for back pain or neck pain. While acupuncture is often not the first line of treatment sought for most back or neck problems, an increasing number of patients, as well as physicians and other health professionals are starting to use acupuncture as a means to reduce neck pain and back pain.

Acupuncture is a form of Chinese medicine that can be traced back at least 2,500 years. The general premise of acupuncture is that the body contains patterns of energy flow. The vital energyor life force of the body is referred to as qi (pronounced “chee”), and proper flow of qi is considered to be necessary to maintain health.

The theory of acupuncture is that there are over 2,000 points on the human body that connect with 20 pathways (meridians). These pathways conduct the qi throughout the body. With acupuncture, hair-thin metallic needles are inserted into specific combinations of these 2,000 points in an attempt to correct and/or maintain a normal flow of qi.

How Acupuncture Works

The mechanisms of acupuncture, though not solidly proven, have exhibited several commonly accepted effects to the body. Most notable is that acupuncture stimulates the central nervous system—the brain and spinal cord. Most people report a tingling sensation, feeling relaxed or even energized. Again, this is largely based on the individual receiving the acupuncture treatment and how he or she perceives it.

During an acupuncture treatment session, anywhere from 1 to 20 FDA-approved, metallic needles are inserted into the body, ranging from just breaking the surface to up to 1 or several inches long. The longer acupuncture needles (such as 5 to 9 inches) are inserted into areas of deeper muscle/fat layers or along, under the skin or even scalp, depending on what is being treated and the required depth or penetration. The acupuncture needles are often left in for approximately 15 to 30 minutes. Some practitioners insert needles, turn them either in one direction or the other or both, depending on what they are attempting to achieve, and these needles are inserted for perhaps 10 seconds only, removed and the same needle is used for treatment of other points on that same patient. In certain instances, needles are warmed or electrically charged after insertion. The electrical acupuncture can be used with needles or through the use of a non-penetrating probe.

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People experience acupuncture differently, and rarely do they describe it as ‘painful’. Unlike needles used for injections, the tip of an acupuncture needle comes smoothly to a point, instead of by way of a sharp edge. Acupuncture needles are also extremely thin—about 20 times thinner than a typical hypodermic needle used for injections. The acupuncture needles are solid and do not remove tissue as would occur with a hypodermic needle, making them safer. Some practitioners also use moxibustion and burn this on the needles during insertion. This is an herb compound that is often used.

Acupuncture also has a cupping component to it, whereby cups are heated and applied to the skin to create suction and bring blood close to the surface.

There are areas on the body that are considered a micro system and some acupuncturists may treat only those micro systems, such as treating only the ear (auriculotherapy), only the face, only the hand, only the foot, etc.

In the US, only sterile, one-time use needles (that are sealed prior to use) are allowed. After use, the acupuncture needles must be disposed in a proper hazardous waste receptacle.

During the course of the acupuncture procedure, specific chemicals release into the body, supposedly affecting back pain and neck pain physically and psychologically.

Acupuncture is thought to operate by:

  • Release of opioid peptides. Opioids are naturally occurring chemicals in the brain that have an analgesic effect. The release of these opioids plays a significant role in the reduction of pain. There has been considerable evidence to support that acupuncture stimulates the central nervous system, releasing these chemicals.
  • Alteration in the secretion of neurotransmitters and neurohormones. Acupuncture is said to activate the hypothalamus and pituitary gland and thereby alter secretion of these chemicals. These particular chemicals play a direct role in the sensation of pain as well as the activity of an organ or organs. Evidence has shown that acupuncture alters this secretion in a manner that reduces pain. Documentation has also shown that acupuncture positively affects immune functions in the body.
  • Stimulation of electromagnetic points on the body. The 2,000 points of the body that acupuncture focuses on are theorized to be strategic conductors of electromagnetic signals. Stimulation of these areas is believed to start the flow of endorphins—the body’s natural painkillers.

While there are many experts in the medical field who believe acupuncture is an effective way to treat certain conditions, there is no true consensus. Some define the benefits of acupuncture within the realm of traditional Chinese theories such as qi and meridians. Others understand and attribute acupuncture’s benefits to certain scientific and biological changes they bring about in the body (as mentioned above). Alternatively, some question the ability of acupuncture to have any impact at all. The skeptics should give it a chance and seek proof for themselves.