Wanna hear something odd?
There’s a treatment available that one would think could cause so much pain, but can actually relieve pain.
I’m talking about acupuncture. It involves the insertion of extremely thin, metallic needles through your skin at strategic points on your body, which according to traditional Chinese medicine balances the flow of energy or life force — known as qi or chi flowing through pathways (meridians) in our body. This treatment had been practiced by the Chinese for 2,000 years, and the western medical world has adapted it, though many Western practitioners view the acupuncture points as places to stimulate nerves, muscles and connective tissue. This stimulation appears to boost the activity of your body’s natural painkillers and increase blood flow.
You may try acupuncture for symptomatic relief of a variety of diseases and conditions, including chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, fibromyalgia, headaches, labor pain, low back pain, menstrual cramps, migraines, osteoarthritis, dental pain and tennis elbow.
How safe are the needles? The needles used were used to be classified as “experimental medical devices” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but after reviewing the existing body of knowledge, they are now classified as safe. The FDA now regulates acupuncture needles, just as it does other devices such as surgical scalpels and hypodermic syringes, under good manufacturing practices and single-use standards of sterility.
The possible side effects and complications include:
- Soreness. After acupuncture, you might have soreness, minor bleeding or bruising at the needle sites
- Organ injury. If the needles are pushed in too deeply, they could puncture an internal organ — particularly the lungs. This is an extremely rare complication in the hands of an experienced practitioner.
- Infections. Licensed acupuncturists are required to use sterile, disposable needles. A reused needle could expose you to diseases such as hepatitis.
- Not everyone is a good candidate for acupuncture or for particular types of acupuncture. Conditions that may increase your risks of complications include:
- Bleeding disorders. Your chances of bleeding or bruising from the needles increase if you have a bleeding disorder or if you’re taking blood thinners such as warfarin (Coumadin).
- Having a pacemaker. Some types of acupuncture involve applying mild electrical pulses to the needles, which can interfere with a pacemaker’s operation.
- Being pregnant. Some types of acupuncture are thought to stimulate labor, which could result in a premature delivery.
The risks, of course, of acupuncture are low if you have a competent, certified acupuncture practitioner. If you’re considering acupuncture, do the same things you would do if you were choosing a doctor. Ask people you trust for recommendations. Check the practitioner’s training and credentials. Most states require that non-physician acupuncturists pass an exam conducted by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. You can also check if the expenses would be covered by your insurance. Advise your doctor you’re considering acupuncture. He or she may be able to tell you about the success rate of using acupuncture for your condition or recommend an acupuncture practitioner for you to try.
What to expect
Each person who performs acupuncture has a unique style, often blending aspects of Eastern and Western approaches to medicine. Your practitioner may ask you many questions about your symptoms, behaviors and lifestyle to determine the type of acupuncture treatment that will help you the most. He or she may also closely examine the parts of your body that are painful, the shape, coating and color of your tongue and face and the strength, rhythm and quality of the pulse in your wrist.
During the treatment
Acupuncture points are located in all areas of the body. Sometimes the appropriate points are far removed from the area of your pain. Your acupuncture practitioner will tell you the general location of the planned treatment and if articles of clothing need to be removed. If appropriate, a gown, towel or sheet will be provided to preserve your modesty. After you lie down on a padded table, the treatment begins. Acupuncture needles are very thin, so insertion usually causes very little discomfort. Between five and 20 needles are used in a typical treatment. You may feel a deep, aching sensation when a needle reaches the correct depth.
Your practitioner may gently move or twirl the needles after they’ve been placed. Another option is to apply heat or mild electrical pulses to the needles. In most cases, the needles will remain in place for 10 to 20 minutes while you lie still and relax. There is usually no sensation of discomfort when the needles are removed. Your acupuncture practitioner should discard the needles after removal — reusable needles can spread infection.
After the treatment
Some people feel relaxed while others feel energized after an acupuncture treatment. But not everyone responds to acupuncture. If your symptoms don’t begin to improve within a few weeks, acupuncture may not be the right treatment for you.