In my fifteen years of practice, whenever I bring up acupuncture as a potential treatment option for patients, the response is usually one of three things:
1. “Sure, that’s a great idea. I’ve found it really helpful in the past/always wanted to try it.”
2. “No thanks, I don’t really believe in that sort of thing.”
3. “Ugh! Needles? No thank you!”
While I absolutely respect a patient’s inclination toward or away from certain treatment modalities, at the same time, I would not be fulfilling naturopathic principle #1 (“doctor as teacher”) if I didn’t first educate my patient on exactly what I’m talking about. At which point, should they still be of the “Ugh! Needles!” mindset, then so be it.
Alright, what is acupuncture? Well, at its essence, it’s simply the insertion of tiny needles at specific sites on the body, aimed at eliciting a certain response. While I won’t go into the many different styles, methods and applications of acupuncture, I will hit on two key, and often overlapping approaches: First, there’s Traditional Chinese Medical (TCM) acupuncture, and secondly, there’s Western/”medical” acupuncture.
In TCM acupuncture, the body is mapped out into a series of channels or meridians, that run along certain parts of the body and correspond to a specific internal organ. In all, TCM includes ten different organs (such as the liver, lung, spleen, kidneys, heart, small intestine, large intestine, etc), as well as something called Sanjiao, which is essentially a space in the body’s trunk that accommodates three sets of internal organs (I could go on, but that’s probably enough detail at this point). Along each meridian, the corresponding acupuncture points can be found. It should also be noted that in TCM, each internal organ also has a number of characteristics that are quite foreign to Western views of anatomy and physiology, such as emotions (ex. The lungs -> sadness), and times of greatest energy (ex. The gallbladder -> between 11pm – 1am). Through a thorough intake and assessment (including examination of the patient’s tongue and pulse), a TCM practitioner can ascertain which TCM organs are in need of support, or any other imbalances. As such, the points used may be located quite far from the issue in question (for example, needling the lower leg for PMS pain, or the wrist for nausea). Then, they simply select the appropriate acupuncture points, and away they go.
Western acupuncture, on the other hand, may use many of the same acupuncture points as in TCM, but the points used are typically much more directly related to the health concern (ie. A patient with shoulder pain would typically receive acupuncture points surrounding the shoulder). Because of this, Western acupuncture treatments are usually performed for joint or muscle issues like sports injuries, rehabilitation, carpal tunnel syndrome, etc.
Perhaps surprisingly to some is the fact that there is a growing body of research supporting the use of both Western and TCM acupuncture, for a wide range of health concerns. Among the strongest evidence supporting its use are studies involving two groups of subjects: One group who receives an appropriate acupuncture plan (often consisting of treatments once or twice per week for four or more weeks), and a second group who receives what’s called “sham” acupuncture, where acupuncture needles are inserted in areas other than the appropriate point locations/meridians (but treatments are otherwise identical). As far as the patients in both groups are concerned, they are receiving proper acupuncture treatments. However, study after study shows that the group receiving the treatment in the appropriate point locations experiences often significantly better results, addressing issues ranging from prostatitis and osteoarthritis to insomnia.
So to sum everything up, it’s pretty clear at this point that acupuncture, whether abiding by Western or TCM guidelines, is a safe, effective treatment option for a wide variety of health concerns. One just needs to get past the whole “Ugh! Needles!” part.
If you would like to discuss acupuncture, give us a call: 604-888-8325.
Dr. Erik Boudreau ND
Integrated Health Clinic