Is acupuncture an art? A science? A religion? Hey, as
long as it works, who cares? Whatever it is,
acupuncture has been used to treat a variety of ailments for about 2,000 years. Though it doesn’t stop cancer
cells from dividing or make transected nerves in an
spinal cord regenerate, acupuncture has been
to alleviate the symptoms commonly associated
these conditions. For many people, however,
remains shrouded in mystique. So let’s
look at how it all works.
Acupuncture is the application of small needles, pressure,
stroking, or electrical stimulation at distinct locations on
the body, generally for the alleviation of pain. Some theories
hold that the general effects
of acupuncture activate
signals to the brain that in turn release substances
hormones or endorphins to affect
areas elsewhere in
Endorphins act as the body’s
can reduce pain or even elevate mood.
may also lead to the release of anti-inflammatory
substances, resulting in relief for symptoms of
inflammatory diseases as arthritis and asthma.
Though acupuncture is still not precisely understood
by modern medicine, it is not irrational to believe that
this sort of treatment can be beneficial to a patient.
Changes in brain activity have been reported on the
positron emission tomography (PET) scans of patients receiving acupuncture, although scientific studies to
prove the effectiveness of acupuncture are difficult to
perform because no effective placebo is available, and
because there is no way to “double-blind” the subjects
Acupuncture is known to affect different locations on
the body in various ways. The complexity of acupuncture
treatment stems from the variety of effects
achieved by accessing different
points on the body.
Acupuncture needles, typically
made of stainless steel, are much smaller than the
doctors and nurses use for administering
make the needles more easily handled
an acupuncturist, the upper segment of an acupuncture
needle is wound in bronze wire or is covered in
Since acupuncture needles penetrate the skin
are not disposable after use, they must be sterilized
the same manner as surgical
The concept of acupuncture centers around the flow of
“energy” (called Qi) through the human body. The
movement of the Qi is defined by twelve channels that
are comprised of internal and external pathways. The
external pathway, existing on the surface of the body, is
what is often depicted on an acupuncture chart. Qi channels
are described as coursing in the body and are associated
of some symptoms relates directly to the organ typically associated with
that symptom (i.e., acupuncture pressure on the stomach
may be applied to treat indigestion), however, other
symptoms may be associated with one or a combination
of organs that aren’t commonly linked with such symptoms
medicine. For example, pressure on a
of acupuncture points near abdominal
like the liver and pancreas may result in elevation
of mood in a person with depression.
Acupuncture points are located along several layers of
pathways throughout the body, specifically along twelve
primary channels called mai. These twelve channels
correspond to the major organs: Lung, Large Intestine,
Stomach, Spleen, Heart, Small Intestine, Bladder, Kidney,
Pericardium (the tissue sack around the heart), San
(an intangible, also known as “the triple burner”),
systems are capitalized
to distinguish them from the actual organs
to the flow of energy
pathways include the Eight Extraordinary
Jing Ba Mai),
the Luo Vessels,
and the Sinew Channels. Ashi,
or “tender” points,
generally used for treatment of localized pain.
In traditional Chinese medicine, health is a condition of
balance within the body of the “yin” and “the yang”.
Particularly important in acupuncture is the free flow of
Qi. Qi, which forms the yang, is the body’s “vital energy”
and, as such, is intangible. The tangible counterpart
the yang is Blood, which is referred to as the yin.
treatment regulates the flow of Qi and
enhancing where there is deficiency,
there is excess, and promoting free flow where
Although acupuncture points are spread over the surface
of the body, a large number of these points can be found
along the spine. Additionally, an entire subset of
acupuncture focuses on points in and around the ear. You
might notice that the outer perimeter of your ear forms a
spiral—in acupuncture, this is referred to as the “helix”.
If you study a friend’s ear closely, you will see another
spiral curve in the opposite direction. This is referred to
as the “anti-helix”. An entire set of stimulation points
over the front and back of the outer ear serves as an
important part of acupuncture treatment for many ailments.
Some acupuncturists focus on these areas, others
combine them with the major body pathways.
In 2003, a team of doctors directed by Alice M.K. Wong,
M.D., treated a group of patients who were recovering
from spinal cord injuries. The doctors incorporated
acupuncture in the treatment regimens, as well as standard
Western modalities such as physical therapy. The team of
doctors used mild electrical stimulation at several key
acupuncture points, including the bilateral Hou Hsi (SI3),
Shen Mo (B62), the antihelix, helix, and the lower portion
of the ear-back areas. These points are significant because
they are all found on Qi pathways related to the spine.
Neurological functions, including sensory and motor
skills, improved greatly in patients whose treatments
included acupuncture. Researchers concluded that the use
of acupuncture, when combined with massage and physical
can be beneficial soon after spinal cord injury.
Though acupuncture cannot make paralyzed people walk
again, patients whose spinal cord injuries are not complete
may find that acupuncture treatment leads to improvement
in their daily functions. In some studies, patients with
incomplete spinal cord injury found that sensation
improved as a result of acupuncture treatment. Improved
sensation in a mostly immobilized individual can reduce
bed sores (called “decubitus ulcers”) that may lead to
infection and possibly end the life of a spinal cord injury
victim. In other studies, spinal cord injury patients experienced
improvement in bladder control after acupuncture
at sites near the tailbone, not far from where the
to the bladder exit the spinal column.
Although it can occasionally result in small amounts of
bleeding and bruises, acupuncture has minimal risks as
a mode of treatment. Moreover, it is fairly inexpensive,
which is particularly good since few insurance companies
cover the procedure. I often tell my patients that,
acupuncture is not risky and is not costly,
to be lost by exploring it as a treatment possibility.
I speak with a patient about undergoing
on his spine, I make every effort
to help him to
better without surgery,
so acupuncture often registers
as a viable option. At least two major studies in
medical literature suggest that more than half
patients with back pain experience significant benefit
You need not “go East” to receive acupuncture treatment.
Many Western clinics now offer various elements of traditional
Chinese medicine, including acupuncture. In
metropolitan areas in the United States, acupuncturists
practice their skills in small offices
Acupuncturists are trained practicioners
must be licensed in most states. When looking for the
who best suits you, use due diligence, just
you would in the search for any physician. And, just as
might during any visit to a doctor,
remember that not
treatment will be effective.
give up after one
two unsatisfactory experiences with acupuncture.
For most of us, science is comforting, particularly in
respect to the treatment of our diseases. However, much
of Western medicine remains a delicate balance between
art and science. While acupuncture is considered by
many to be an ancient medical art, it is well established,
is not totally inconsistent with scientific principles, and
is not risky or expensive. For those who suffer from
pain or discomfort, it is a viable, practical option that is
often well worth consideration.
by Thomas Chappell, MD
Articles in the Alfred Molina Issue; Senator Tom Harkin — IDEA 35 Years; Ashley’s Column — Girls Ride; Acupuncture — Ancient Chinese Secret, Revealed!; Aphasia: The Movie — A Film Beyond Words; Love Simple — Lights! Camera!...Lupus?; Trail Mix — The Wilderness Made Accessible; Amputee Recovery — From the Middle East to Haiti; Lachi — A Voice in the Darkness; Laura Hogikyan — The Play’s the Thing; Creative Arts Festival — Veterans with Artistic Vision; A Trip to Germany — Disability and Deutchland; A Day In The Life — Nursing with a Movement Disorder; Alfred Molina — Law & Order and the Injustice of AIDS; Malcolm Smith — A Ride Down Memory Lane; Shakes — Parkinson’s Disease; Victoria Taylor — Excerpt From Caitlin’s Wish; Sally Franz — Excerpt From Scrambled Leggs; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe
Excerpts from the Alfred Molina Jan/Dec 2010-11 Issue:
Alfred Molina — Interview
Love Simple — Lights! Camera!...Lupus?
Malcolm Smith — A Ride Down Memory Lane
Creative Arts Festival — Veterans with Artistic Vision
Amputee Recovery — From the Middle East to Haiti
A trip to Germany — Disability and Deutchland
Lachi — A Voice in the Darkness
Acupuncture — Ancient Chinese Secret, Revealed!