Acupuncture is a form of treatment which involves the insertion of tiny needles into the skin at very precise points throughout the body. The needles are solid, sterile, and single-use. No medication is injected. The presence of the needles creates a therapeutic effect by encouraging healing, reducing pain, and promoting energy.
How does acupuncture work?
There are two approaches to acupuncture: classical acupuncture and anatomical acupuncture.
Classical acupuncture is rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). In TCM theory, energy flows through the body in predictable channels, called meridians. Pain and dysfunction occur when the flow of energy is deficient or out of balance. TCM theory proposes that acupuncture relieves pain and promotes good health by restoring the body’s energy balance. The acupuncture points are located along the meridians. Needles are inserted to correct energy imbalance and restore energy flow throughout the meridian. Therefore, pain and dysfunction in one part of the body can be treated with acupuncture points at a distant location in the body.
Anatomical acupuncture was developed based on Western anatomical and physiological concepts. In this theory, acupuncture has both local and distant effects:
- Locally, acupuncture needles stimulate the release of endogenous opioids at the site of the needle. Endogenous opioids are natural painkiller molecules that are synthesized in the body and released to decrease pain. Blood supply to the area is increased, which promotes healing by improving the delivery of oxygen and immune cells to the injured tissue. Immune cells, such as mast cells, macrophages, and fibroblasts aid the natural process of tissue healing. The needles also suppress the local inflammatory response, which further helps to decrease swelling and pain.
- Distal to the needle site, acupuncture stimulates peripheral afferent nerves. Afferent nerves carry sensation signals from nerve endings to the brain (such as sensations of touch, temperature, and pain). The acupuncture needle interacts with the afferent nerves to modulate and suppress the transmission of pain to the brain. This reduces the perception of pain.
What are the benefits of acupuncture?
Acupuncture is effective in treating a wide variety of neurological and musculoskeletal disorders, including:
- Tendonitis and tendinopathy
- Ligament sprains
- Muscle strains
- Myofascial pain and inflammation
- Nerve pain, such as sciatic pain
- Low back pain and disc bulges
- Whiplash and other neck pain
- Muscle tension headache and suboccipital headache
- Bell’s palsy and trigeminal neuralgia
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), acupuncture is used to treat many other conditions:
- Digestive problems (nausea, vomiting, constipation)
- Respiratory problems (sinusitis, congestion, bronchitis)
- Urinary problems
- Menstrual pain
- Anxiety and stress
What can I expect from acupuncture treatment?
The reaction to treatment is unique to each person. Some people feel relief immediately, while others notice improvement after hours or days. Some people require several treatments before noticing improvement. Some people do not respond at all. The number of treatments required varies for each patient and condition. Similar to most types of treatment, acupuncture works best if it is repeated a few times.
Are there any side effects?
There are usually no side effects to acupuncture treatment. The most common side effects are tenderness or slight bruising/bleeding at the needle site, but these only occur approximately 6% of the time. Occasionally, someone may feel nauseous, faint, or dizzy. This occurs less than 1% of the time.
Your physiotherapist will assess you thoroughly to ensure that you are a safe and appropriate candidate for acupuncture treatment.
Preparing for acupuncture treatment
Prior to treatment, have a light meal and be well-rested. Avoid alcohol or sedative medications for 4 hours before treatment, and avoid smoking tobacco for 1 hour before treatment. Continue to take medication as prescribed by your doctor.
After acupuncture treatment avoid alcohol, caffeine, and smoking tobacco for 1-2 hours. If you are being treated for pain relief, avoid strenuous activity for 1-2 days after treatment, even if you feel pain-free.
Acupuncture is a useful adjunct treatment to physiotherapy. It is effective for treating a wide variety of musculoskeletal and neurological problems, including acute and chronic conditions. Your physiotherapist will assess you thoroughly and create a treatment plan to address your unique needs.
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ZJ Zhang, XM Wang, GM McAlonan. Neural acupuncture unit: A new concept for interpreting effects and mechanisms of acupuncture. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (2012)
SM Wang, ZN Kain, P White. Acupuncture analgesia: I. The scientific basis. Anesthesia and Analgesia (2008).