Perhaps the most familiar element of Chinese medicine is
acupuncture. Acupuncture is the process of inserting hair-
fine sterile single use needles into specific acupoints to
cause a physiological response in the body. Chinese
medicine theory explains in detail the functions of specific
acupuncture points and a doctor of Chinese medicine is
trained to select acupoints specific to the condition of the
individual patient. The patient relaxes while the needles are left in for a period of time ranging from 15-30 minutes for adults to only a few seconds for infants. Please refer to the terminology section to
understand needle sensation.
How does acupunture work?
This is a question commonly asked in the clinic. There are a number of modern theories which at least partially explain the effect of acupuncture.
There have been many attempts to explain how acupuncture works scientifically with only partial results. It is reasonably clear that the needle itself has an anti-inflammatory effect. There are also theories that suggest a function to modulate the nervous pathways that carry pain. However, these only tell part of the story.
The Chinese medicine view
To understand the Chinese medicine view it is worth reading the section on theory to gain a basic understading of the some of the terminliogy. In Chinese medicine we talk about meridians and acupoints. Meridians being the discreet pathways that carry the Qi and blood throughout the body. Along these lie the acupoints. In my mind I see them as windows into the internal workings of the body. They are access points to manipulate the flow of Qi and blood and to affect the organs that create, control and manage them. An acupuncture needle as we know it today is a relatively modern technology. Historically acupoints have been stimulated with stone, bamboo, bone and ivory needles. They can be manipulated by touch, by heat and by electrical stiluation (TENS).
Just a placebo?
One common misconception is that acupuncture results rely on the placebo effect. For this to occur it presumes that the patient is compliant and 'believes in' or has 'faith' in the treatment. The easiest example of this is the replacement of a drug with a sugar pill in a clinical trial with both the drug and the sugar having a similar therapeutic effect, a placebo. In the case of acupuncture however we know clinically that it is effective on infants and it has been shown to work on animals, both of which rule out the placebo effect.
I had an interesting patient who came to me with a sports injury. He was skeptical, infact he told me that he 'knew' the acupuncture would be unsuccesful, but that someone had suggested he try it just the same. The day folowing his first treatment I received a phone call to say that he had become pain free and had completely changed his mind as to the postive effect of acupuncture. No placebo here, just pain relief.
There are few side effects of acupuncture when it is
performed by a well-trained doctor of Chinese medicine.
The common ones include a small bruise at the site of
needling and a tiny droplet of blood once the needle is
removed, although these are relatively uncommon. There is
a risk of fainting, but this is often due to apprehension or
low blood sugar rather than by the acupuncture itself. It is
quite common to have a slight reduction in blood pressure as a
response to acupuncture. The risk of fainting is however
small should be well managed by the doctor. If you
feel at risk of fainting or feeling nauseous or dizzy make
sure you tell your doctor straight away. It is always a good idea to have eaten something prior to a visit to reduce the risk of fainting.
For some patients acupuncture may not be appropriate.
This may be due to needle fear, condition or constitution.
In these cases the doctor can opt for alternative treatments
or where Chinese medicine is unsuitable, refer you to another health care provider.