As an element of the ancient practice of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture has been used for thousands of years for a variety of reasons, from rebalancing the flow of energy to the treatment of pain. Almost since the advent of traditional Western medicine, the practice of acupuncture—put simply, inserting very thin needles in strategic areas on the body—for treatment has been dismissed as ineffective pseudoscience. However, due to its proven ability to reduce pain, treat depression and anxiety, and improve overall health, the acceptance and embrace of acupuncture within conventional medicine has grown by leaps and bounds in conventional medicine today.
Inserting acupuncture needles at very specific points on the body kicks off a cascade of physiological, biochemical processes that essentially sends signals through the central nervous system (CNS) to corresponding organs and systems. This process was originally described by Traditional Chinese medicine as enhancing the flow of life force, or qi, through internal pathways to improve health. And while the concept of qi may be met with resistance among many in Western medicine, more and more research is coming out showing that, when applied properly, acupuncture is a safe, valid, and effective method of decreasing inflammation and the many health issues it causes.
Get That Blood Pumping
During experiments, Harvard researchers found that acupuncture activates different nerve pathways that can suppress inflammation, depending on where, when, and how it is used. However, there really is no simple explanation for how acupuncture works—there are innumerable things happening behind the scenes internally in response to having all these tiny foreign objects inside the skin. Therefore, it is perhaps easiest to boil it down to blood flow—in particular, the quality and quantity of blood flow. Acupuncture improves blood flow quality by helping your body produce substances vital to your good health (anti-inflammatory substances, immune cells, endorphins to block pain receptors, etc.) and getting those substances pumping into the bloodstream. And because blood flow has been constricted in areas of chronic pain or dysfunction in the body, the quantity of blood flow is therefore improved as well, in that acupuncture also dilates tiny blood vessels, helping to deliver those vital substances in areas where they need to go. In other words, the main job of acupuncture is, in essence, awakening and alerting the body to help it remember the areas that it has been neglecting, and to reestablish and maintain healthy blood flow to those areas.
Inflammation as Culprit, Acupuncture as Cure?
Many, if not most, chronic conditions trace back to inflammation as their source, and this is where acupuncture really rises to the occasion, typically achieving the best results with issues that are due to some sort of inflammation that conventional medicine doesn’t understand and/or isn’t helping with. As is blatantly obvious from our addiction to pain medications, conventional medicine doesn’t have all that much luck with chronic pain. Fortunately, acupuncture excels at treating chronic pain—this is what has brought it to prominence in the West over the past few decades and is still what most people know and use it for.
There has also been a great deal of success using acupuncture for treatment of other long-term, chronic inflammatory conditions such as seasonal allergies, digestive issues, fibromyalgia, chronic Lyme disease, and so on. Research has shown that there is also an inflammatory component to conditions such as depression and anxiety, which can also be treated very effectively with acupuncture. Additionally, we know acupuncture has a strong effect on the part of the brain that controls the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, actively cooling off the fight-or-flight response (sympathetic) and stimulating the rest and digest aspect (parasympathetic).
Getting Under Your Skin
In terms of understanding how acupuncture helps improve overall, whole-body health, we can begin with how it treats localized issues as a foundation. Acupuncture sends signals through the peripheral nervous system into the central nervous system and the brain, which then sends signals to all the other systems (circulatory, endocrine, reproductive, digestive, etc.). Essentially, acupuncture is encouraging the body to function as optimally as possible and when that happens, it is easier to see how all things in our bodies are connected. For example, I may have a patient come to me for knee pain and even though we’re principally treating for that knee pain, after a few treatments they’ll say things like, “you know, I’m feeling really good overall…. I’m sleeping better, my wife says I’m more pleasant to be around, and even though the stress in my life hasn’t changed, I find it just rolling off my back more and more.” Or that same knee-pain patient will come back in after their annual physical and say, “Hey, did you do something for my cholesterol or my blood pressure? Because I haven’t changed anything, but my doc says they’re improving.” And my response is always the same: “No, not specifically, but it’s likely a side effect of acupuncture to get your body humming along as well as it can.”
Such positive side effects lead naturally to the more “energetic” effects of acupuncture—those historically “mysterious” and “out there” effects that, though once widely questioned, are now becoming more accepted into the mainstream. There is no denying that there are also ethereal and spiritual effects of acupuncture, and even that idea fits into the concept of circulation in the body, that qi, or life force, actually circulates in the bloodstream—so we can’t really treat something physically without realizing some mental/emotional/spiritual effects as well.
I Wish I’d Tried This First!
Although treatment via acupuncture is effective in many health-related issues, it is not recommended to use acupuncture in place of conventional medicine altogether. When I first started practicing, patients would tell me they had mentioned to their doctor that they were seeing me, only to be met with a roll of the eyes and a pat on the head, condescendingly sending the message, “whatever you think will make you feel better.” Then, a few years ago, when we began to realize we were in the midst of an opioid epidemic, we began to get a lot of referrals from doctors with patients suffering from pain-related issues. These days, we have doctors sending us patients for a wide range of maladies, including many with chronic conditions who aren’t responding well to conventional treatments.
Very often, acupuncture is the one thing that finally helps those patients. The effects acupuncture can have on your health—whether localized pain or whole-body health—are undeniable. Living with chronic pain does not have to be your only option. At Connecticut Family Acupuncture, we can treat your chronic pain and help you get back on your way to being your best self. The statement, “I wish I’d tried this first!” has been heard countless times in our clinic, and it’s a wonderful feeling as an acupuncturist to be on our way to being fully recognized and accepted into the mainstream of medicine.
Moving into the Mainstream
In a recent article from Northwestern Health Sciences University, Jessica Frier, DAOM, L.Ac., states, “People are complex, and that’s why I think it’s great when patients can be looked at through different healthcare lenses. An acupuncturist is going to approach a patient’s health and well-being differently than a conventional healthcare provider.” A conventional medical doctor may focus more on managing a patient’s symptoms from a biomedical perspective, but according to Frier, although that approach may sometimes be necessary, it can also leave patients feeling like they don’t have much say in their healthcare. “An acupuncturist can balance the situation by guiding a patient’s own ability to help heal and regulate the body,” says Frier. “That’s why I think having both perspectives is so valuable.”
This combined effort between conventional Western and Traditional Chinese medicine in treating and perhaps preventing chronic health issues is a conversation we will continue to have much more often in the coming days, months, and years. And hopefully, we will very soon be seeing even more regularly the move from that theoretical conversation into the actual practice of including acupuncture as treatment for a variety of chronic health conditions.
During a month-long internship in China as part of my graduate program in acupuncture, seeing how seamlessly integrated acupuncture is into their healthcare system—patients in fully modern hospitals, hooked up to IV drips and all sorts of monitors, with the supervising physician sending down a “prescription” for acupuncture, and the acupuncturist running right up to the room to treat the patient—I expect we will see that type of integration in our country in the not-too-distant future. This should be the future of medicine, and I believe we will all be better—and healthier—for it.
Matt Maneggia, LAc, is a licensed acupuncturist and the founder of Connecticut Family Acupuncture with offices in Glastonbury and Storrs. As a board member of the CT Society of Acupuncturists, Matt advocates for increased access to acupuncture through insurance coverage and the integration of acupuncture into the mainstream healthcare system.
He can be contacted through his website at: www.CTfamilyacupuncture.com or via the main office at 860.633.6022.