Acupuncture Is Not Just For Pain
Research shows acupuncture has many uses
Acupuncture treatments for pain are just the tip of an iceberg. The power of tiny needles to stop pain in its tracks was first introduced to Western popular culture in the early 1970s, when journalist James Reston wrote about his appendectomy during American President Nixon's trip to China — he was anaesthetized with acupuncture needles.
Since then, the majority of scientific research about acupuncture has focused on this startling effect, and today acupuncture is well known for its effectiveness in relieving pain.
But those little needles are useful for a lot more.
Dr. David Eisenberg, a medical doctor and one of the first western doctors to study traditional Chinese medicine in China, explained that most people "think acupuncture is used only as an anaesthetic, but Chinese medicine uses it to cure hundreds of different diseases."1
In my practice, I work with acupuncture needles to treat many of those conditions. Depression, anxiety and insomnia are all especially common in our society, and responsive to acupuncture, even where medications have failed. Women's health issues like menopause, PMS, and infertility are good candidates for treatment by acupuncture. Digestive disorders like ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, and irritable bowel syndrome — quite difficult to treat by other methods — also do well with acupuncture. Acupuncture can even help clients lose weight and quit smoking.
In fact, there probably isn't any health problem that acupuncture can't help. Sound too good to be true? Obviously, acupuncture alone cannot cure every disease: but because its purpose is to restore harmony in unbalanced lives, it can have at least some beneficial effect on nearly any condition. For this reason, I believe that acupuncture is a valuable part of all treatments.
An acupuncture success story
In my office, I have seen many fascinating examples of successful acupuncture in cases where most people wouldn't expect it to be useful. The story of "Jane" is particularly dramatic.
Jane was eight months pregnant and nearly crippled by severe hemorrhoids. There is almost no limit to the misery that this condition can cause, and Jane was in particularly rough shape. She was in so much pain that she was uncomfortable in any position — she couldn't sit down, lie down, or even stand comfortably. When I met her, she was kneeling awkwardly in a chair in my waiting room, crying and desperate. She was particularly afraid because, of course, serious hemorrhoids can make child birth much more difficult.
Amazingly, a single acupuncture treatment relieved approximately 50% of her symptoms, and one more treatment virtually cured the condition. Jane was able to give birth without any significant discomfort from her hemorrhoids.
Of course, not every acupuncture treatment has benefits this dramatic. But it's an inspiring example of what is possible.
How does acupuncture work?
People are understandably curious about the scientific basis for acupuncture. Does it really work, or is it just Chinese folk medicine? How can you treat pain by poking someone with needles?
Science has both proven the effectiveness of acupuncture and yet — so far — failed to explain it. We know that the evidence that acupuncture works in many cases is strong, but there are not yet any clear answers about how it works in medical terms.
It makes sense in Chinese terms, however. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) views the body as a balancing act between different qualities of your vitality or "qi". Qi is a Chinese word that is often poorly translated as "energy" in the west, giving rise to the idea that there is some mystical Star Wars-like "force" in the body. That's a nice idea, but it's wishful thinking. However, we do possess an astounding biological busyness. Every person is a marvellous natural machine. In short, we are "humming" with life — and that is chi, an intricate dynamism.
In TCM's almost poetic view of human nature, pain and disease are caused by a life out of balance. For instance, your "liver" qi might be too strong — not literally your liver, but qualities of your vitality that are manifested most clearly in your liver and liver function. Excessive liver qi is associated with certain kinds of problems, and the acupuncture needles can tame it. The needle is used to manipulate qi, stimulating a healthy flow of vitality, either attracting qi or clearing excessive qi. If the practitioner chooses needling locations skilfully, then balance — and function — are restored.
Sound weird and wonderful? It is. But the proof is in the pudding.
Some recent acupuncture research
Acupuncture has been studied exhaustively. For many years, Chinese research dominated as Chinese physicians struggled to explain and prove the benefits of acupuncture and bring it into the mainstream. However, a lot of that research was criticized by for being poorly conducted: small sample sizes, no comparisons with other treatments, and biased designs meant that it was almost impossible to draw any firm conclusions. At best, many years of Chinese research only proved that more was needed.
That's all changed. At least 300 studies of acupuncture were published in 2005 alone. They were published by researchers from around the world, in a wide variety of scientific journals, and many of them were of excellent quality.
For example, a group of physiologists at Selcuk University in Turkey studied biochemical mediators in the use of acupuncture, finding that acupuncture increases levels of endomorphin-1, beta endorphin, encephalin, and serotonin levels in both plasma and brain tissue.2 This is a lot more specific than saying acupuncture "stimulates nerves and blood," and goes a long way to explaining some of the effects of acupuncture.
A little more down to earth, The American Journal of Chinese Medicine published a study by the same researchers showing that acupuncture may help with weight loss. Amazingly, in just twenty days, women receiving only acupuncture lost twice as much weight as women on a calorie restriction diet.34 LDL cholesterol (so-called "bad" cholesterol) levels dropped in both groups — but even lower in those who received acupuncture. Looking at biochemical markers as benefits like this eliminates any criticism that acupuncture is a placebo — if acupuncture can reduce LDLs to a greater extent than dietary changes alone, then we have a strong case for using acupuncture to assist in weight loss and prevention of heart disease!
Consider a third study of acupuncture for menopausal symptoms, finding that a remarkable 97% of women they treated with acupuncture were either cured, mostly cured, or significantly improved by acupuncture, suggesting that acupuncture is probably more effective for this purpose than any medication — and likely safer, too!5
This is just a small sampling of some of the better studies done in 2005 alone. There are literally thousands from the last several years that show that acupuncture is definitely not just wishful thinking.
And it's not painful either!
Acupuncture isn't just useful for treating pain, and it doesn't hurt either. Many people have heard this, but find it difficult to believe. How can needles not be painful?
Acupuncture needles are nothing like injection needles. An injection needle is a wide, hollow thing, more like a sharp pipe than a "needle". An acupuncture needle is as thin as a hair (0.2mm) — so thin that it can easily be guided to miss nerves, and few cells are even damaged. Occasionally, perhaps one in a hundred insertions, a needle does hit a small nerve, which hurts about as much as a spark. In such cases, the needle is promptly removed. The vast majority of the time, however, there is no pain of insertion at all.
There is sensation, however! The needle is usually stimulating stagnant meridians, and may cause symptoms, not unlike stretching stiff muscles in the morning, which can feel both uncomfortable and relieving at the same time. People commonly report feeling "pressure" or a "dull ache." Tingling, flushing, and burning sensations are also common. But these sensations are quite different from the pain of being "stabbed" by a needle.
Some closing thoughts
Like massage therapy or counselling, acupuncture is a therapy that provides benefits regardless of the situation. No matter what ails the body and the mind, the evidence suggests that acupuncture facilitates all kinds of healing — rarely "curing" like a magic wand, but mobilizing the body's own vitality to rise to any challenge. Illness is ultimately an expression of a life out of balance — often in combination with bad genes and bad luck — and tipping the scales in your favour is always worthwhile.
And, of course, it's good for pain control, too!
- Moyers, Bill. Healing and the Mind. New York: Doubleday, 1993. Book review.An excellent compilation of ideas about mind-body perspectives on health, health care and physiology. Return to text.
- Cabyoglu MT, Ergene N, Tan U. The mechanism of acupuncture and clinical applications. Int J Neurosci. 2006 Feb;116(2):115-25, abstract. Return to text.
- Cabyoglu MT, Ergene N. Electroacupuncture therapy for weight loss reduces serum total cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL cholesterol levels in obese women. Am J Chin Med. 2005;33(4):525-33, abstract. Return to text.
- Cabyoglu MT, Ergene N. Changes in serum leptin and beta endorphin levels with weight loss by electroacupuncture and diet restriction in obesity treatment. Am J Chin Med. 2006;34(1):1-11, abstract. Return to text.
- Shen X, Du Y, Yan L, et al. Acupuncture for treatment of climacteric syndrome — a report of 35 cases. J Tradit Chin Med. 2005 Mar;25(1):3-6, abstract.