Acupuncture is a 3,000-year-old healing technique of Traditional Chinese Medicine. In 1997, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) documented and publicized acupuncture’s safety and efficacy for treating a wide range of conditions. Acupuncture is now covered by many insurance policies and is used most broadly to relieve pain.
How does acupuncture work?
Acupuncture improves the body’s functions and promotes the natural self-healing process by stimulating specific anatomic sites–commonly referred to as acupuncture points, or acupoints. The most common method used to stimulate acupoints is the insertion of fine, sterile needles into the skin. Pressure, heat, or electrical stimulation may further enhance the effects. Other acupoint stimulation techniques include: manual massage, moxibustion or heat therapy, cupping, and the application of topical herbal medicines and linaments.
Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on an ancient philosophy that describes the universe, and the body, in terms of two opposing forces: yin and yang. When these forces are in balance, the body is healthy. Energy, called “qi” (pronounced “chee”) flows along specific pathways, called meridians, throughout the body. This constant flow of energy keeps the yin and yang forces balanced. However, if the flow of energy gets blocked, like water getting stuck behind a dam, the disruption can lead to pain, lack of function, or illness. Acupuncture therapy can release blocked qi in the body and stimulate function, evoking the body’s natural healing response through various physiological systems. Modern research has demonstrated acupuncture’s effects on the nervous system, endocrine and immune systems, cardiovascular system, and digestive system. By stimulating the body’s various systems, acupuncture can help to resolve pain, and improve sleep, digestive function, and sense of well-being.
What happens during an acupuncture treatment?
First, your acupuncturist will ask about your health history. Then, he or she will examine your tongue’s shape, color, and coating, feel your pulse, and possibly perform some additional physical examinations depending on your individual health needs. Using these unique assessment tools, the acupuncturist will be able to recommend a proper treatment plan to address your particular condition. To begin the acupuncture treatment, you lay comfortably on a treatment table while precise acupoints are stimulated on various areas of your body. Most people feel no or minimal discomfort as the fine needles are gently placed. The needles are usually retained between five and 30 minutes. During and after treatments, people report that they feel very relaxed.
How many treatments will I need?
The frequency and number of treatments differ from person to person. Some people experience dramatic relief in the first treatment. For complex or long-standing chronic conditions, one to two treatments per week for several months may be recommended. For acute problems, usually fewer visits are required, usually eight to ten visits in total. An individualized treatment plan that includes the expected number of treatments will be discussed during your initial visit.
What conditions are commonly treated by acupuncture?
Hundreds of clinical studies on the benefits of acupuncture show that it successfully treats conditions ranging from musculoskeletal problems (back pain, neck pain, and others) to nausea, migraine headache, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and infertility.
Case-controlled clinical studies have shown that acupuncture has been an effective treatment for the following diseases, symptoms or conditions:
Allergic rhinitis (including hay fever)
Depression (including depressive neurosis and depression following stroke)
Dysentery, acute bacillary
Epigastralgia, acute (in peptic ulcer, acute and chronic gastritis, and gastrospasm)
Facial pain (including craniomandibular disorders)
Induction of labor
Low back pain
Malposition of fetus, correction
Nausea and vomiting
Pain in dentistry (including dental pain and temporomandibular dysfunction)
Periarthritis of shoulder
The following diseases, symptoms or conditions have limited but probable evidence to support the therapeutic use of acupuncture:
Abdominal pain (in acute gastroenteritis or due to gastrointestinal spasm)
Alcohol dependence and detoxification
Cholecystitis, chronic, with acute exacerbation
Competition stress syndrome
Craniocerebral injury, closed
Diabetes mellitus, non-insulin-dependent
Epidemic haemorrhagic fever
Epistaxis, simple (without generalized or local disease)
Eye pain due to subconjunctival injection
Female urethral syndrome
Fibromyalgia and fasciitis
Hepatitis B virus carrier status
Herpes zoster (human (alpha) herpesvirus 3)
Male sexual dysfunction, non-organic
Opium, cocaine and heroin dependence
Pain due to endoscopic examination
Pain in thromboangiitis obliterans
Polycystic ovary syndrome (Stein-Leventhal syndrome)
Post-extubation in children
Radicular and pseudoradicular pain syndrome
Raynaud syndrome, primary
Recurrent lower urinary-tract infection
Reflex sympathetic dystrophy
Retention of urine, traumatic
Sialism, drug-induced (excessive salivation)
Sore throat (including tonsillitis)
Spine pain, acute
Temporomandibular joint dysfunction
Ulcerative colitis, chronic
Whooping cough (pertussis)
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What is moxibustion?
Moxibustion is a form of heat therapy in which dried plant materials called “moxa” are burned on or very near the surface of the skin. The intention is to warm and invigorate the flow of Qi in the body and dispel certain pathogenic influences.
Moxa is usually made from the dried leafy material of Chinese mugwort (Artemesia argyi or A.vlugaris), but it can be made of other substances as well.
What exactly does the practitioner do?
In the U.S., practitioners generally hold a burning moxa stick close to, but not touching, the surface of the skin.
In this method, the moxa material is compressed into a stick or pole, looking not unlike an oversized cigar that can be lit and allowed to smolder, producing a unique form of very penetrating heat.
The smoldering moxa stick is held over specific areas, often, though not always, corresponding to certain acupuncture points. The glowing end of the moxa stick is held about an inch or two above the surface of the skin until the area reddens and becomes suffused with warmth.
What can I expect to feel?
It is not uncommon for patients receiving moxibustion to report a sudden flooding of warmth that quickly radiates along a specific pathway (usually corresponding with the jing luo channel that is being treated) away from the site of application. This is a good result, as it indicates the arrival of the Qi and signals that the flow of Qi and xue has been freed in the channel.
When is moxibustion used?
Moxibustion is used for:
- Pain due to injury or arthritis, especially in “cold” patterns where the pain naturally feels better with the application of heat
- Digestive problems and irregular elimination
- Gynecological and obstetrical conditions, including breech presentation in late term pregnancy
- Protection against cold and flu strains
Practitioners often do both acupuncture and moxibustion in the same clinic session when appropriate to the diagnosis and treatment strategy. Practitioners believe that the therapies increase each other’s effectiveness when used together.
Unlike acupuncture, which is almost always done by a trained practitioner in a clinic setting, moxibustion can be easily used at home. It is not uncommon for Chinese medical practitioners to train their patients to use moxa on themselves to strengthen the effect of the clinical sessions between appointments.
What does it smell like?
There is a small inconvenience associated with moxibustion: the smoke and odor. Although there are so-called smokeless varieties of moxa, the preferred true moxa (made from mugwort) does produce a lot of smoke when burned. Most TCM clinics are well equipped with a good ventilation and air purification system, so this is not a big problem.
However, the lingering odor produced from burning mugwort unfortunately smells somewhat like marijuana. Most TCM practitioners in the United States, place small signs around their office informing patients and visitors about the true nature of the odor that they may be noticing.