How does acupuncture work?

Western scientific studies of acupuncture continue to discover ways that acupuncture works on the body, for example through the nervous, immune and endocrine systems.

These systems can operate in a tightly integrated way, even interacting with thoughts and consciousness.

Western practitioners try to understand this interconnectedness through interdisciplinary groupings such as psycho-neuro-immuno-endocrinology (studying the interconnection of mind, nervous system, immune system and hormonal system).

Acupuncture has been discovered to:

  • change blood flow
  • release endorphins (in-built painkillers)
  • relax muscles
  • change the way the body is mapped in the brain; and
  • stimulate the “relaxation response” which promotes the body’s self-healing systems.

Chinese medicine starts with the assumption of wholeness. Nature and the cosmos is one whole, with living beings as a part of that whole. The human body is a whole, and parts of the body are always behaving as parts of the whole.

We look at how this integrated whole-system body interacts with the world and with other influences on health such as emotions. The way that this intelligent, complex system responds to ever-shifting forces, and how the intelligence creates the structures that we see, is called “Qi” or “Chi” (pronounced “Chee”).

With repeated observation in ancient times, certain points on the body were found to produce reliable responses. In ancient times, people mapped these points, and these maps have informed the modern system of acupuncture that is in use today. When a point is stimulated, the body responds to this input of information. The information flows in predictable ways, and these pathways of flow are sometimes called meridians. There are 361 specific points on these channels, plus many “extra” points – around 2,000 in total.

For muscular pain, acupuncture can release so-called “trigger points” – small knots of muscle that have locked and can’t relax. Accessing these trigger points releases the knot of muscle and can relieve pain that has referred to other areas. This is an acupuncture technique called releasing “Ah Shi” points (“Ah Shi” is an exclamation meaning “ah yes” or “that’s it”). If you’ve had “dry needling” from a practitioner of another health modality, this is based on an idea similar to “Ah Shi” acupuncture technique. Normally though, dry needling tends to create much stronger feelings that authentic Chinese Medicine acupuncture.

What is qi?

Qi (pronounced “chee”) is often translated as “energy” or “life force”. It is the energy that moves the blood in the vessels and moves the limbs. It is the energy of the body’s organs as they carry out their vital functions.

Qi can also be used in non-medical terms to describe the essence or the sensory experience of something. Chinese is a symbolic language and comparing one thing to another brings a rich quality and quantity of information. For example, “river qi” could be compared with “ocean qi” or “swamp qi”. While these are all bodies of water in the techinical sense, our experience of these environments carries layers of meanings.

Qi can be light or it can be dense. It has been said that “qi is energy on the verge of becoming matter, and matter on the verge of becoming energy”.

This ancient concept, that has no real equivalent term in English, is very close to the understanding of the relationship beween matter and energy according to the latest advances in physics.

Is acupuncture painful?

Treatments at this Clinic are usually gentle and relaxing. Acupuncture usually takes you into a sleepy altered state that is ideal for triggering the body to heal.

The sensation as the treatment commences might be mild and gentle throbbing, tingling, heaviness or numbness. These sensations usually subside after a minute or so. After a while, you should drift off into a pleasant relaxed state.

Sometimes a stubborn or severe condition might require a treatment using slightly stronger techniques, but this will be discussed with you prior to treatment.

What kinds of conditions can you treat?

Many people seek treatment when all their test results from the doctor are “normal” but they still feel unwell or are in pain. Others may seek Chinese medicine treatment alongside their usual care, to help regulate body systems or help with side effects.

Because Chinese medicine uses a different way of studying and diagnosing the body, we ask different questions about what the body is asking for, assessing through the symptoms and signs that are presenting.

Your treatment plan is an integrated, holistic response to your body’s signals. Treatment may also incorporate stress management, dietary advice, work-life balance, exercise therapy, meditation or mindfulness practices.

How often should I have treatment?

In China, a course of acupuncture treatments is ten treatments – once a day for ten days. In the West, it is usually not feasible to have treatment daily. For long-term conditions, once a week is generally enough to get a momentum established. Your practitioner will work with you to determine the treatment frequency.

Short-term or severe conditions usually benefit from treatments twice a week to start with. Studies suggest that the healing response in the local tissues following an acupuncture session happens over about three days. This is why twice-weekly treatments are ideal, to keep up the momentum of the healing response.

How many treatments will I need?

In average cases, you would expect to see positive changes after three to six treatments. Then we will have a better idea of your unique condition and needs.

Many people feel an immediate improvement in their condition after the first treatment, but this is not to be expected in all cases.

Some severe or complex conditions may require a longer period of time before you feel a change. Your practitioner will discuss expectations with you, and where possible we will help you determine the signs and symptoms to monitor so you can assess your progress. Some symptoms may be slower to change than others.

As a general rule, the longer you have had a condition, the more treatments you will need to adequately address it. If you have had the problem for many years, then it is realistic to expect you will need treatment for several months.

Babies and children generally respond extremely well to treatment. They usually need fewer treatments than adults. However, for long-term conditions it is important to maintain treatment until the child’s body has attained a degree of equilibrium at the improved level of health.

What about prevention?

Chinese medicine is designed as a way of preventing health problems. The whole framework of Chinese medicine is based on balance and connection – balance, harmony, smooth flow and moderation in the body’s functioning. And healthy connection between body systems, between a person and their social environment, and between the human being and the natural environment.

The movements of nature are considered to be a powerful source of energy. If we move in accordance with nature’s rhythms, nature’s vast energy is available to connect with and nourish the human being. If we move against these rhythms, we miss the opportunity to be supported by the vast movements of nature beyond our physical body.

Moving with the seasons, with the day and night cycle, regulating the breath, eating according to body type and the weather… Chinese medicine contains a rich treasure-trove of insight and practical advice for human beings to maximise their potential to live a harmonious, contented life.

Responding to the very first onset of illness is a key component of protecting your health. For example, Chinese medicine has a detailed description of illnesses such as cold and flu, how they enter and interact with the body, how to treat at various stages and – most importantly – the importance of responding as early as possible, to give the body a chance to use its resources to recover.

Convalescence is another important concept that has been forgotten by industrialised nations such as our own. Recovering from illness is more than just not being too bothered by symptoms. True recovery means allowing the intelligence that drives the interconnectedness of the body to fully express itself. It means recovering your resources so that you have adequate energy to digest, work, play and rest – as well as defending yourself from unwanted influences. Half-recovery means going out into the world in a state of vulnerability. Full recovery means giving yourself the best chance of defence against further episodes of illness.

We love to help our patients to stay well. We do this in many ways – through free talks, workshops, information hand-outs, newsletters and specific one-on-one advice. Please sign up for our newsletter to keep in touch.

Do I need Chinese herbs?

Herbs are often a very useful way to increase the benefits of your acupuncture treatment and keep the healing going between treatments.

Herbs can also be taken as the main therapy, with fewer or no acupuncture treatments. Every person is unique, and the beauty of Chinese medicine is that it is totally tailored to you and gives you what you need to heal.

When you come to the clinic, we will assess your unique condition and explain to you the various interventions that we recommend in order to encourage your body in the direction of self-healing.

Other than acupuncture and herbal medicine, there are many ways that Chinese medicine knowledge can be applied to your recovery, such as mindfulness and other stress reduction, dietary therapy, lifestyle and work-life balance adjustment and exercise therapy.

How do I take Chinese herbs?

This will depend on your condition and the style of herbalism that your practitioner uses.

Granules or powders: A special blend of water-soluble granules or powders of individual herb extracts is prepared for you in response to your changing condition. You dissolve the mixture in hot water, like instant coffee.

Pills: For milder conditions, herbal pills are available. These are prepared versions of common herbal formulas.

Capsules: Capsules, like pills, are also prepared versions of herbal formulas but they are a little stronger than the pills.

Although pills and capsules are convenient, often the granules will be prescribed as they can be precisely tailored to exactly what you need each time.

Raw herbs: Some practitioners will supply raw herbs (bark, roots, seeds, flowers, etc cooked into a decoction) while others may give you a prescription to be filled at a nearby dispensary.