Despite the fact that acupuncture gets lumped into the questionable (and often uninsured) “New Age” medicine category, there’s nothing new about it; the practice has actually been thriving for millennia. Clear records of acupuncture’s usage date back two thousand years, but some historians argue that it’s been practiced for twice that long. Either way, it’s undoubtedly older than much of what we take to be medical gospel—anesthesia, vaccines, and antibiotics, too.
Over the past few thousand years, Chinese medicine has tirelessly classified a slew of various bodily ailments and their related symptoms, and experimented with various pressure points to deduce which areas correspond to the various pain and sicknesses from which we suffer. On a basic level, acupuncture is the practice of inserting very thin needles into specific pressure points to treat these pains or sicknesses.
“That’s the scientific method at its finest,” says Elizabeth Kianu Stahmer, licensed acupuncturist and owner of Dancing Grass Medicine in the San Francisco Bay Area. If only we could say that much for our economic panaceas.
According the National Institutes of Health, this precise pricking can truly help with a range of conditions, including nausea after surgery, chemotherapy symptoms, and chronic pain. Despite this evidence, researchers aren’t exactly sure what, exactly, it is about needle stimulation that produces these effects, though some believe that it aids the body’s release of pain-killing chemicals and how we regulate blood pressure and flow.
Intrigued (and always looking for fresh wellness options), I decided to look into this a little more. What actually goes down behind an acupuncturist’s doors?
Start at the Beginning
To gain an understanding of how all these needles and this pressure-point mapping works, I began with a look back toward acupuncture’s roots. The ancient Chinese believed in a universal life energy, called chi, which is present in every living creature. It makes up the spiritual, emotional, physical, and mental aspects of our lives. In our healthy bodies, it flows freely along twelve pathways, known as meridians. It’s when these energy flows become blocked that things fall out of balance, for whatever reason, and we run into problems like pain and illness. By inserting their needles in pressure points, acupuncturists seek to restore the free, healthy flow of chi in sick bodies.
A Typical Session
It starts, like so many things, with paperwork. “I really use this as a vehicle for starting a conversation,” says Stahmer, who uses the basic forms as a launching point for a discussion of new patients’ health. Stahmer says that much of the language people use in describing their problems steers her toward particular organ systems. “Each organ has a corresponding point,” she explains. “When there’s an excess or deficiency in the body, organs behave in certain ways.”
After this discussion and a basic examination of the patient, the acupuncturist states what she sees as the problem from a Chinese medical perspective, and discusses the related points that she’d like to stimulate for treatment. To begin the actual acupuncture, patients lie down, removing any clothing blocking relevant pressure points. Once needles are inserted, patients (usually) rest with them in for around twenty minutes.
Where do the needles go? “There are specific measurements for acupoints along acupuncture meridians,” says Krishna Bader, a licensed acupuncturist based in Eugene, Oregon. “But intuition plays a huge role for me during a session with a patient in choosing which points are appropriate.”
If someone is experiencing pain in a particular location, acupuncturists will place needles both locally (right around where it hurts) and distally, along the meridian where the energy flow is blocked.
What should you expect to feel like afterward? “Most patients feel deeply relaxed,” says Bader, “but each patient is different.” She urges prospective patients to seek out an acupuncturist who will foster their self-awareness, which will in turn aid them in noticing the relief and various sensations they experience during and after each session.
Should You Try It?
Let’s review: Acupuncturists base where they place needles by mapping out pressure points that correspond to the body’s meridians: bladder, kidney, large intestine, spleen, gall bladder, liver, pericardium, stomach, heart, lungs, small intestine, and triple heater (a point above the diaphragm that doesn’t have an equivalent in modern medicine). Each of these twelve pathways contains a number of pressure points, along which the acupuncturist places needles—near the problem area or at relevant sites on other parts of the body. Stimulating a point along the bladder meridian, for example, would be a technique for treating lower-back pain. Patients will often have points in various areas of their bodies, like the left and right sides, stimulated at the same time. In fact, sometimes needles are inserted in very unexpected places, such as a woman’s hands (to induce labor) or the middle point of the upper lip (to alleviate strong back pain).
Unexpected pressure points aside, most modern ailments do have documented acupuncture treatment methods. Mostly, the technique is used for pain relief—including muscle injuries, carpal tunnel problems, menstrual pain, and toothaches—but it also treats anxiety and depression, infertility, labor induction, respiratory problems (like asthma and bronchitis), digestive ailments, allergies, skin problems, heart problems, low energy, and addictions, like smoking.
Do all patients have to keep coming back for more? “It depends how long someone has had a condition,” says Stahmer. A new, acute pain may go away in a session or two, while managing chronic pain would be an ongoing process. “Some people leave their first session telling me they can touch their toes for the first time,” says Stahmer, “then just wander in seven months later, asking for a tune-up.” Only you can know how your own body will respond to this ancient practice.