What is acupuncture and how does it work?

Torso_front_back-927x622The practice of acupuncture is thought to have begun over 2000 years ago with the discovery that the stimulation of specific areas on the skin, called acupoints, can affect the functioning of certain organs of the body. It has developed into a system of medicine that restores and maintains health by the insertion of fine needles into these points just beneath the body surface. According to Chinese Medical Theory, qi (or life-force) travels along pathways called meridians, bringing energy and nourishment to all the tissues of the body. Acupuncture can remove obstructions from these pathways, or strengthen the qi of certain areas thereby correcting imbalances that produce pain or dysfunction.

Especially over the past 40 years, acupuncture has become more popular in the Western world, leading patients and researchers to ask, “but how does it really work?” Unless you accept the traditional Chinese understanding of human physiology, this is a difficult question to answer. So far, no single scientific explanation has been able to account for the varied effects acupuncture has been shown to produce. However, several of the most common theories are described below.

  • Acupuncture can increase blood circulation to a particular area.

Compared to non-acupoint sites, acupoint sites have greater densities of sensory nerve endings. Attracted to these receptor rich endings are two types of molecules that have been shown to widen blood vessels and lower blood pressure. Getting more blood flow to the site of an injury can assist healing. This may also explain why acupuncture can be helpful with fertility issues in that it can increase blood flow to the ovaries and uterus.

  • Acupuncture can stimulate the release of endorphins.

Endorphins are natural painkillers in the central nervous system that, when released, often eliminate all sensation of pain. Experiments with acupuncture have shown that there are higher levels of endorphins in brain and spinal cord fluid following acupuncture. Using acupuncture to increase endorphin release is useful because endorphins are known to reduce stress, boost the immune system, improve blood circulation, ward off the effects of aging, and control pain.

  • Acupuncture reduces the sensation of pain registered by the brain

After completing brain imaging of 12 people who experienced some type of pain, scientists at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey compared those images to the images of the same 12 people after acupuncture. In the pictures of the brain before acupuncture, the area of the brain that shows pain was lit up with activity. In the pictures after each patient’s acupuncture treatment, the color in the area that was lit up with activity had decreased by 60 to 70 percent.

  • Acupuncture can help regulate cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and immunological function.

Acupuncture at certain sites releases chemicals in the brain that reduce active responses in the cardiovascular system. It can down-regulate the sympathetic nervous system, the so-called “fight or flight” response. In turn, the parasympathetic system is engaged, which is more conducive to quality sleep, healthy digestion and appropriate immune response. Further, calming the nervous system decreases the heart’s activity and its need for oxygen, which in turn lowers blood pressure and promotes healing for many cardiac conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure and heart murmurs.

Theories about how acupuncture creates the results it does are ever evolving. Western scientists will continue researching exactly how acupuncture works. In the meantime, acupuncture will continue to grow in popularity because more and more people are discovering the benefits of this style of treatment.

What conditions do you treat the most?Acupuncture

People of all ages come for treatment of many different kinds of problems. We treat a lot of pain, especially back and shoulder pain. We treat headaches and menstrual pain. But we also treat a lot of conditions you might not expect Chinese medicine to address, such as depression and anxiety, fertility and pregnancy issues, digestive problems and even athletic performance. See “conditions treated” for more information.

Can acupuncture prevent illness?

“…the change of yin and yang through the four seasons is the root of life, growth, reproduction, aging and destruction. By respecting this natural law it is possible to be free from illness.”Some people without particular health complaints find that having acupuncture 4-5 times per year helps to support general well-being and to prevent seasonal colds and allergies. This practice is consistent with the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine as noted in the first written medical text:

Does insurance cover Chinese Medicine?

At this time, some insurance companies will cover acupuncture treatments and others will not. Furthermore, your particular insurance plan may or may not cover acupuncture. You will need to call your carrier to find out if your particular case would be covered. Some insurance carriers have restrictions about who must provide the acupuncture, or how many treatments you may receive. Our office is not set up to file insurance claims for you, but we are happy to give you a receipt with the appropriate coding so that you may be reimbursed. Generally, Worker’s Compensation claims do include acupuncture as a covered therapy.

Do you participate in my insurance carrier’s discount program?

As a rule, we do not participate in such programs. We do,  however, offer a community acupuncture clinic that provides acupuncture treatments on a sliding scale basis. The cost for this clinic is about the same as an insurance co-payment.

What should I expect from the first visit?

Stillpoint Acupuncture offers health care that is centered around you as an individual. For that reason, we will conduct an extensive interview at your first visit, which allows us to tailor a treatment plan to your specific needs and goals. After the interview, the practitioner will feel your pulse and ask to look at your tongue. These provide further clues as to the cause and progression of your illness within the Chinese Medical framework.

Generally, an acupuncture treatment is included in the first visit. During a treatment, the practitioner inserts the needles and then lets you rest for 20-40 minutes, checking on you at 10-15 minute intervals. Most people use this time to relax, some even fall asleep! Your practitioner may also use modalities such as cupping, electrical stimulation or moxibustion if it is appropriate to your case.

Before you leave, your practitioner will explain your diagnosis and treatment plan, and offer dietary education and lifestyle advice. Unless your condition is acute, we may wait until the second visit to offer herbal treatments. You should expect this visit to last about one and one-half hours.

If possible, try not to drink caffeine or alcohol before your appointment. Try to wear loose, comfortable clothing. Strenuous exercise immediately before or after an appointment is also discouraged. You should, however, eat normally. Receiving acupuncture on an empty stomach can cause lightheadedness or fainting.

 Does acupuncture hurt?

Everyone experiences acupuncture differently. Some people feel almost nothing during a treatment. Others are more needle sensitive and may feel the insertion of the needles. In this case your practitioner will do whatever she can to lessen the discomfort.

After the needles are in, you may experience a tingling, warmth, dull ache, numbness or heaviness at the needle site or sometimes in another part of the body. This is normal and is called feeling the “qi.” On the whole, most people find treatments to be quite relaxing.

If you find that the needles are simply too uncomfortable for you, we may be able to employ alternatives such as acupressure, tuning forks, magnet therapy, or you may decide to try herbal therapy exclusively. Ultimately, you are in charge of your treatments, and you should feel free to let your practitioner know if you are ever uncomfortable in any way.

What will I feel afterwards?

After the first treatment especially, many people feel somewhat fatigued or “drained.” Other people describe this as deeply relaxed. Still others feel an energy surge after a treatment.  Some people experience an emotional release–unexplained crying or burst of anger. Rarely, there is a sense of disease, nausea or sudden digestive disturbances caused by moving Qi that has been stagnant for a long time. This should pass quickly, but we recommend that you use the time after your appointment to rest and relax. Don’t plan to come to your first acupuncture appointment just before a job interview or big presentation at work. Plan to ease back into your day after the appointment. This gives your body time to incorporate the treatment most effectively.

If you find that you consistently feel tired after a treatment, please bring this to the attention of your practitioner. There may be a way to alter the treatments so that this doesn’t happen.

How often do I have to come back?

When people in China go to an acupuncturist for treatment, they typically expect to be seen 3-5 times per week for 1-2 months depending on the severity of their condition. However, in the US, acupuncture treatments are considerably more expensive and are often not covered by insurance companies. Thus, American patients typically receive acupuncture 1-2 times per week and take herbal formulas as well. The herbs work in conjunction with the acupuncture to extend and support the effects of the weekly treatments.

The number of acupuncture treatments required depends on your individual case, and you should be given an expected course of treatment during your initial interview. If your condition is acute, 2-4 treatments may completely resolve your symptoms. However, if you have been dealing with your symptoms for many years, addressing them effectively will take longer.

Especially for painful conditions, receiving several treatments per week may significantly reduce the overall time needed to resolve the condition. If you would like to be seen several times per week, we can arrange a fee discount to make your care more affordable.

Are there side effects or complications from acupuncture?

Acupuncture can activate chemical, hormonal and other changes and you may notice alterations in your sleep patterns, appetite, bowel or urinary habits, and emotions. Most of the time, these are desirable changes which are experienced as positive and indicate that your body is beginning to heal itself. Occasionally, there may be a temporary worsening of symptoms. However, if this occurs it generally happens early in the course of treatment and is often followed by overall improvement

The insertion of needles may also cause bruising. In rare instances acupuncture may cause nerve damage or puncture the lungs or other organs. Your practitioner has received extensive training and takes significant measures to avoid such an occurrence.

However, if at any time you are concerned about any aspect of your treatment, please bring your concerns to the attention of your practitioner or to You may also take any concerns or complaints to the NC Acupuncture Licensing Board by calling (919) 821-3008.

How will I know the treatments are working?

At first you may notice subtle changes such as better sleep or digestion, or you may simply feel less stressed, more relaxed or more “grounded.” Ideally, you will soon begin to notice a decrease in the severity and/or frequency of your symptoms. If you have not noticed any changes within the first 3-4 treatments for acute conditions, or the first 8-12 treatments for chronic conditions, please discuss this with your practitioner. In long-standing conditions, you and your practitioner should establish realistic treatment goals so that you can track exactly how well the therapy is working.

What if I have more questions?

If you have further questions, we will be happy to talk with you.
Call us any time at 336-510-2029 or 919-663-1137.