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In Western cultures such as the United States, acupuncture is widely considered to be an unconventional element of Western medicine for the treatment of neck pain back pain. While it is not widely used as a first line of treatment for most neck or back problems, more and more doctors as well as other health professionals are turning to acupuncture as a way to lessen back and neck pain.
Used as far back as 2500 years ago in China, acupuncture is based on the premise that the body possesses pathways were vital energy circulates throughout the body. This vital energy is called qi or chi by the Chinese; to experience good health, the normal circulation of qi should be maintained in the body.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners believe that the human body possesses over 2000 points and 20 energy channels known as meridians. These channels are where qi circulates throughout the body. With the use of filiform stainless steel sterilized needles, the acupuncturist inserts them into some of these preselected acupoints in an effort to maintain or correct the proper flow of qi.
How Acupuncture Works
Although not verified, the mechanisms of acupuncture have manifested a number of commonly accepted effects to the body. Stimulation of the central nervous system, which comprises the spinal cord and brain, is one of the most notable effects of this therapy. When the needles are inserted, people usually experience a numbing and/or tingling sensation. Afterwards, they may feel either energized or relaxed. This will depend on the person receiving the treatment as well as on how the person perceives the treatment.
There are about one to twenty needles that will be stuck into the person skin during an acupuncture procedure. The depth into which a needle is inserted into the skin may range from a single inch to several inches long. Areas of the body where deeper fat/muscle layers are found are treated with 5 to 9 inches long acupuncture needles. The needles to be used will, of course, depend on the required penetration or depth and on what condition is being treated. The acupuncturist normally leaves the needles in place for 20 minutes to a full hour. There are acupuncturists who turn the needles in one or more directions after they’ve been inserted into the skin. This is done in accordance with what the acupuncturist is trying to achieve. Sometimes, the inserted needles are removed and inserted back into the skin of the patient. Sometimes, the needles are electrically charged or heated after they’ve been inserted into the skin. Electro- acupuncture may be utilized through a non-penetrating probe or with needles.
Individuals may experience acupuncture in different ways but almost all of them never describe the treatment as ‘painful’. The tip of an acupuncture needle is not sharp-edged but comes smoothly to a point unlike needles used for drawing blood or for injections. In terms of width, acupuncture needles are 20 times thinner than a typical hypodermic needle used for injections. This is as thin as the hair in your scalp. These needles do not remove tissue as what would happen when using hypodermic needles which makes them really safe to use. There are acupuncturists who integrate moxibustion therapy into an acupuncture procedure where moxa leaves are burnt on the needles while they are inserted in the skin to augment the potency of the treatment.
Some practitioners may use cupping, a procedure in which cups are heated and laid on the skin to generate suction to suck blood close to the skin surface.
Some acupuncturists specialize in treating microsystems. These systems are found on the body particularly on the ear. Ear acupuncture is also known as auriculotherapy. Other microsystems used by acupuncturists include the ones found in the foot, the hand, and the face among many other parts of the body.
Single-use sterilized disposable needles (needles that are sealed prior to use) are the most widely used acupuncture needles in the United States. In the US, only sterile, one-time use needles (that are sealed prior to use) are allowed. These needles are disposed of properly after use in a bio-hazardous waste receptacle.
The insertion of the needles into the body releases certain chemicals in the body. This physiological process helps relieve or even cure neck pain and back pain psychologically and physically.
Acupuncture is believed to work by:
Activating specific electromagnetic points on the body – The 2,000 acupoints on the body is where acupuncture needles are inserted to stimulate electromagnetic energy. When these areas are stimulated, endorphins are released into the bloodstream causing the alleviation of discomfort and pain.
Altering the production and release of neurohormones and neurotransmitters – The needles are believed to stimulate the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus causing the production and secretion of these chemicals. The neurohormones and neurotransmitters are responsible for the suppression of pain as well as the function of specific internal organs. Tests have revealed that acupuncture modifies the chemicals’ release in a way that stops pain. Studies also show that this treatment impacts the immune functions in a positive way.
Releasing opioid peptides – The analgesic effect of opioids causes a significant reduction of pain in the body. Opioids are substances that are naturally developed in the brain and studies have shown that acupuncture activates the central nervous system to help secrete these chemicals.
In spite of the positive opinion of many medical experts about acupuncture’s ability to treat specific conditions, no consensus so far has been reached to make this treatment a formal form of therapy since all could not agree on how it really works. There are others who define the effectiveness of the treatment within the boundaries of TCM principles of meridians and qi while some attribute its success based on certain biological and scientific changes that it causes in the body. There are also some who question if acupuncture does indeed work at all.
Considered a safe mode of treatment, acupuncture is seen by practitioners and doctors alike to be a powerful alternative form of treatment or as an adjunct to other medical treatments. In specific cases, it may be used as a replacement for conventional painkillers or used in combination with them.
The NIH (National Institutes of Health) in 1998 announced that evidence abounds showing the effectiveness and pain-relieving abilities of acupuncture in adults who have undergone post surgical dental pain, and in the treating of chemotherapy-related nausea. Acupuncture was also deemed by the NIH to be a valid form of for low back pain and for other painful conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome, osteoarthritis, myofascial pain, and headache.
Countries such as China use acupuncture in various ways including stomach and brain surgeries and in other surgeries as well. There are occasions when a surgical procedure would require part anesthesia part acupuncture to suppress pain during surgery.
Dr. Vickery is a licensed acupuncturist in Tarzana, CA., and the founder and clinical director of Vickery Health and Wellness.