To the western mind, acupuncture may seem a bit…unconventional. Sticking needles into one’s body as a way of provoking a relaxation response and relieving pain could very well be the textbook definition of counterintuitive. As with many of life’s curiosities, however, there is much more to the story here and if you’ll stick with me (pun intended), I’ll do my best to demystify the practice of acupuncture and provide some reasons why you may benefit from it.
Acupuncture is an ancient therapeutic modality that utilizes the insertion of hair-thin needles into designated areas of the body to activate its innate self-healing mechanisms. The insertion of a needle into the skin is perceived by the body as a sort of microinjury and in response, the immune and nervous systems come to the rescue, setting off a cascade of neurochemical activity. The result of this process includes enhanced circulation and immune function, ultimately leading to the accumulation of endogenous opioids that make us feel calm and block pain receptors, providing pain relief.
The act of needling also communicates with the autonomic branch of the nervous system, which is the regulator of our sympathetic – fight or flight – and parasympathetic – rest and digest – responses. Acupuncture has been shown to have a balancing effect, tipping the scales towards parasympathetic activation for those who are sympathetic-dominant and vice versa; a typical acupuncture treatment will more often than not send a patient sailing off into a blissfully parasympathetic state, as most people in our culture spend the majority of our waking hours in a highly-stressed, overly-scheduled, constantly-stimulated sympathetic state.
Humans are designed to spend much of their time in a parasympathetic state, and because bodily processes – from digestion to hormonal function to mood and cognition to recovery from and adaptation to physical activity (I’m looking at you, cross fitters and marathon runners), and beyond – function optimally when the parasympathetic nervous system is in charge, it makes sense that acupuncture’s de-escalation of sympathetic-driven stress responses can also have beneficial effects on these other physiological processes. This is one of several factors behind the common observation of acupuncture patients who seek treatment for a pain condition but notice unanticipated but much-welcomed improvements in digestive function, mood, cognition, energy, and hormonal activity.
All of this is to say that acupuncture meets the body where it’s at and works to bring it back into balance; it assesses what’s going on under the hood as it relates to immune mediators, neurotransmitters, hormones, and other signaling molecules, bringing up what there’s not enough of, and ratcheting down what is in excess. To that end, one need not have an acute issue in order to benefit from acupuncture – in fact it operates wonderfully as preventive care for cold and flu and allergy seasons, regulates reproductive hormones to promote fertility for those preparing to conceive, and enhances resilience to stress. Lastly, for those suffering from chronic conditions (chronic pain, chronic stress-mediated conditions, behavioral conditions, depression, anxiety, eating disorders) which have an unsavory tendency to get hard-wired into the brain, creating a self-perpetuating vicious cycle, acupuncture has demonstrated the capacity to effectively untangle and rectify that maladaptive hardwiring, leading to improved outcomes.
Having extolled the virtues of acupuncture, I have to make a disclaimer that it is not a one-size-fits-all therapy, nor is it a miracle cure. The number of visits needed in order to find relief will vary from person to person, with acute issues typically requiring less time and treatment than longer, protracted conditions. Often the best responses to acupuncture come from patients who play an active role in their own healing, addressing and potentially modifying lifestyle factors such as nutrition, sleep hygiene, and stress management.
Oh, and one last thing. Acupuncture doesn’t hurt. There may be some sensation when a needle is inserted, but it’s usually minimal if it’s perceived at all. Most people find acupuncture to be very relaxing, and some even fall asleep during their treatments. Bonus points for snoring.
I hope this shed some light on the whats, whys, and hows of acupuncture; I’ll be back soon with another installment on acupuncture benefits and mechanisms.