One of the main therapies in Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture is a system of medicine that originated approximately 5000 years ago in ancient China, and is still used by millions of people on a daily basis.
Acupuncture therapy is based on stimulating specific points on the skin in order to produce a healing response within the body.
What can Acupuncture help with?
Acupuncture has been shown to help many different issues, ranging from pain relief to emotional health and even internal medicine. Studies have shown it to be an effective, natural choice for many common conditions such as lower back pain, headaches and neuropathy. Because it works on a “whole person” perspective, acupuncture can also help improve mood, emotional balance and energy.
Where acupuncture shines, is for issues that are not often easily resolved by other methods. It has been proven to be just as effective as conventional pain medication for certain conditions. It can be used to support menstrual health, digestive health, and to recover more quickly from surgery. Acupuncture is one of the safest natural therapies that can be administered in pregnancy, for issues such as nausea, constipation and even helping to encourage a breech baby to turn.
Auriculotherapy is a specific branch of acupuncture that focuses only on acupuncture points located on the ears. It is effective for protocols involving pain relief, emotional health, weight loss and addiction recovery such as smoking cessation and other addictive behaviours. Auriculotherapy can be used in a larger scheme to support other therapies as well.
Regardless of the main reason for coming in – many patients report beneficial “subtle side effects” of acupuncture treatment that include improved sleep quality, better mood, more energy and a more resilient handle on daily stress.
How Acupuncture works
There are well over 300 acupuncture points all over the body, including the face, ears and scalp. We can stimulate the points with acupuncture needles, or with non-needle methods such as laser, microcurrent, magnets or even with therapeutic essential oils.
Acupuncture essentially taps into the body’s own healing power. Each time the skin is punctured (or otherwise stimulated) at a specific acupuncture point, it increases microcirculation of blood and energy to tissues, glands, nerves and organs. The body perceives each stimulation as a tiny wound that needs to be healed and calls upon the immune system’s response. This causes an increase in blood flow and also the body’s natural production of endorphins.
Acupuncturists select a “recipe” of points, based on the patient’s diagnosis and the goal of each treatment. The points may remain the same for the duration of the treatment plan, but usually they are adjusted as an individual’s needs may change slightly at each visit.
What does Acupuncture feel like?
If the idea of needles sounds scary to you, rest assured that Acupuncture is not meant to be painful. The needles used for acupuncture are not the same as for injections or for blood donation – they are thin, fine needles about the width of a cat’s hair.
Although acupuncture needles are very fine, there may still be a slight sensation at insertion. If you are very sensitive to needles, it’s a good idea to let your practitioner know in advance – and they will check in with you during the treatment. Most patients are surprised when I tell them the needles are already in – as they were expecting to feel sharp pain.
The most pronounced feeling people experience during an acupuncture treatment is a feeling of overall relaxation. They may often notice a subtle “movement” of energy around the points, like a tingle or a vibration.
Acupuncture is proven to be one of the safest therapies worldwide. It has been developed over thousands of years, and is currently used all over the world on a regular basis. There are virtually no side effects, and it is an effective therapy that is 100% natural.
The needles are sterile, single use medical devices and safely disposed of as medical waste after each treatment.
What to expect during an Acupuncture session
At your first visit, you will be asked to fill in some health intake forms and go over consent information. We will spend some time going over your main concern and also talk about general health, including sleep, digestion, stress and energy levels. For women, most of the time we will also ask quite detailed questions about your menstrual cycle, especially if an aspect of reproductive health is the main concern.
We’ll continue with a few other diagnostic methods, which may include pulse taking and looking at your tongue. Part of the assessment may also be palpating body areas such as back or abdomen, to feel for any signs of tension in the body.
The treatment may take place on a massage table, or on a recliner. Needles may be inserted at various points in the body, although the most commonly used points are on the lower limbs, forearms, back, and abdomen. The needles are left in for anywhere from about 20-60 minutes during which time you can relax (and many people take a brief “acu-nap”).
Acupuncture as part of a Treatment Plan
We usually combine acupuncture as part of a larger treatment plan that includes suggestions for lifestyle shifts, herbal remedies or food recommendations. Some practitioners may also recommend meditation, exercise, supplements or even self care “homework” to do between treatments. All of these components work together and should be considered part of the treatment process.
Trying acupuncture once and deciding “it did not work for me”, is not a fair assessment. To get the best results you should commit to a treatment plan of several visits.
What should I wear to an Acupuncture appointment?
I recommend wearing something loose and comfortable, such as:
- Loose fitting pants that can be rolled up to the knees
- Shorts (either wear them or bring with you)
- Tank top or other t-shirt that can expose arms/shoulders and abdomen
It's not ideal to wear tight fitting leggings or jeans, dresses or a one piece jumpsuit. However, regardless of what you are wearing your Acupuncturist will be able to offer proper draping should you need to remove any item of clothing for a treatment.
Do’s and Don’ts for Acupuncture treatment
In order to have the best treatment experience, and get the most out of acupuncture, it is generally recommended NOT to:
- Schedule heavy exercise or exert yourself right before or after an acupuncture session.
- Drink caffeine right before or after a session (especially if it makes you feel “wired”).
- Have a heavy meal right before your treatment.
- Drink alcohol before a treatment. I usually suggest abstaining from alcohol for the rest of the day after a treatment as well.
You should plan to:
- Plan to have a light meal or snack so that you are not hungry during treatment.
- Stay well hydrated before and after your treatment (but not drink water in excess either).
How many needles are used in an Acupuncture treatment?
There is no standard number of needles that can be used in an acupuncture treatment, as many practitioners have specific training or will follow a particular protocol or style. There are many different styles of Acupuncture, including styles developed in different countries over thousands of years. An acupuncture treatment may have as few as 1 needle or upwards of 20 or more needles used during the treatment.
How many treatments will I need?
Each person’s situation is unique, so the number of treatments will vary. Generally the longer a condition has been a concern, the more treatments will be needed to get good, lasting results.
For instance, a condition such as having serious weekly migraines for 5 years will likely require a fair number of treatments. The patient may start to see some improvement almost immediately, but it may take a number of visits in order to really reduce severity. The good news is that sticking to a properly planned treatment schedule brings lasting results for many people. After getting the symptoms under control, the former migraine patient may only need an occasional “acupuncture tune-up” every once in a while.
For more acute conditions, such as an injury – there may be fewer treatments but they will likely be condensed into a shorter period of time.
How to Choose an Acupuncturist
In Ontario, Acupuncture is available from licensed health practitioners such as Registered Acupuncturists (R.AC), Registered Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners (R.TCMP) as well as other providers such as Physiotherapists and Chiropractors.
Some may only treat certain conditions such as pain, while R.ACs and R.TCMPS have a broader scope of practice. Training may vary greatly for other professions, and some providers receive limited education on acupuncture compared to others.
R.ACs and R.TCMPs are specialists in Acupuncture and have many hundreds of hours of acupuncture training and practice compared to other acupuncture providers, who may have only taken a few weekend courses in this therapy.
In addition to studying Traditional Chinese Medicine, Acupuncturists and TCM Practitioners are Registered Health Practitioners that must also complete biomedicine studies before writing a board licensing exam.
It is always a good idea to inquire with your practitioner about their training, experience and what they can help you with.
Acupuncturists may choose a particular focus for their practice, such as orthopedics, emotional health, fertility or pregnancy acupuncture – but are also trained and generally experienced in dealing with overall health issues.
Asking friends and family may be a good start when looking for a new Acupuncturist. Consider asking the other complementary health providers at your wellness clinic, or looking for recommendations on any support groups you may belong to. In Ontario, all R.ACs and R.TCMPs are licensed through the CTCMPAO, and can be looked up on the board’s website.
Many people approach acupuncture with scepticism, and perhaps rightly so. It’s mechanisms are not easily explained and although there are many studies, it is not yet 100% percent accepted by the broader medical community. However, it IS being used successfully all over the world, with very few side effects compared to more invasive methods. And the best part is, you don’t need to believe in it, in order for it to work.
Curious about acupuncture? Ask an Acupuncturist how you can get the best results for your unique situation.