The Needle's Eye: Looking at the Effectiveness of Acupuncture
Dr. Thomas Patavino D.C., MS, F.I.A.M.A.
Acupuncture is probably one of the more difficult concepts to explain. Most of us have heard of it, some might have tried it, and others probably fear it. We will try and remove some of the fear and mystery that surrounds this ancient art of healing. Acupuncture is the ancient art of healing that utilizes tiny needles to restore the body's natural mechanism of healing. No one knows for sure the exact date acupuncture was introduced to the world. Historians have found documentation in the Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine, which is said to be the oldest medical textbook in the world depicting the use of acupuncture. It is said to have been written down from even earlier theories by Shen Nung, which would make the art at least 5000 years old. .
The principals behind acupuncture are based on balancing the body and allowing proper energy flow. To begin, the Chinese believe we have an energy force that runs throughout our body. This energy force, named Qi (pronounced chee) is responsible for our physical, spiritual and mental health. When flowing properly, we are healthy individuals. When there is disruption, our health becomes challenged and we are susceptible to pain, distress or illness. In addition to the concept of Qi, we have the Yin-Yang theory. Yin and Yang are two polar opposites. Symbolized by two half circles, one side black with a white circle and the other white with a black circle. The expression ‘opposites attract” is probably coined from the Yin-Yang principal. Yin is considered the female of the two, characterized by qualities such as cold, dark, passive and low. Yang, the male counterpart is described as warm, light, aggressive and high. The Chinese believed Yang was the sun and Yin was the moon. We are made up of both Yin and Yang characteristics. In this theory, you must have both Yin and Yang for harmony. Too much of one or the other creates imbalance. When we are in balance, our body is at ease, when imbalanced you might say we are in a state of dis-ease or disease.
Now that we introduced the concepts of QI and Yin-Yang, we can explore how these theories affect the body. Qi flows throughout the body. It travels along pathways called meridians. Meridians are like highways. The body has 14 different highways or meridians that travel throughout. Twelve of the meridians are named for the organs we have in our body such as the heart, liver and gallbladder. Along the meridians are points, which we will consider exits along the meridian highway. Each meridian has a different number of points and allows the normal flow of Qi. If a point is blocked, Qi can't flow properly. This is the equivalent of a traffic jam due to a tractor-trailer accident blocking an exit or an on-ramp. When Qi flow is disrupted, Yin and Yang become imbalanced and the body's state of harmony is jeopardized. It is believed that any disruption in Yin –Yang balance or disruption in Qi flow is the underlying cause for all ailments. An ailment might be a cold, a chronic sore back, and addiction to alcohol or nicotine, obesity, diseases such as arthritis, asthma, infertility or mental illness. Whatever condition plaques us can be traced back to the meridian system.
Time and seasons also play a role in how Qi flows through the meridians. Each of the twelve meridians has a two-hour time frame throughout the day when it is most active. A good example of relating this concept to health is the lung meridian. The lung is most active between the hours of 3 and 5 am. According to the Mayo Clinic, most asthma attacks occur around 3 and 4 am. Perhaps there is something to this concept. Jet lag has been found to occur when we travel east to west, but not north and south regardless of the actual hours spent on the plane. The meridians don't recognize the time change and as a result the body becomes sluggish. This is easily remedied by stimulating points that coincide to the new time change and re-setting the body's internal clock. To further substantiate the influence of time and seasons, many people fall into patterns of poor health around the same time every year. I'm sure most of us know that person who gets sick every February or the neighbor who's bad knee acts up every spring. This can be traced back to low points of energy flow throughout the year.
Now that we have explored the theories behind acupuncture, we can look at some of the conditions that respond to acupuncture treatment. Addiction to nicotine, alcohol and overeating are good examples of ailments that are difficult to control by conventional means alone, and have a fairly high rate of success with acupuncture2,3. What most people don't realize as these conditions are very similar in nature. The meridian points related to the mouth are overactive and need constant fixation. Acupuncture sedates that activity, along with anxiety that is the underlying need for a cigarette, a drink or that sugar craving. Inflammation related to arthritis, tennis elbow, bursitis or other musculoskeletal conditions all demonstrate over activity of fire points along the body. Acupuncture uses water points to put out fire points reducing the pain, redness and heat associated with inflammatory conditions.
Conditions associated with excess water such as profuse sweating, edema, vomiting, and diarrhea all share similarities with the over-activity of water points. Acupuncture uses earth points to block water, much like a dam prevents water from going to places we deem undesirable. Often, most of our ailments are due to internal stress. High blood pressure, fibromyalgia, infertility, chronic headaches and irritable bowel syndrome are all examples of conditions triggered by either internal or external stress. The body is more equipped to heal itself and ward off symptoms when internal stress is reduced. Acupuncture stimulates the body to reduce internal stress so it can better defend against external stress and the negative impact that often results. Acupuncture can be used for pain control. It is believed that stimulation of points along the meridians facilitates the release of endorphins (chemicals produced by the body to dull and block pain). Natural pain control has been demonstrated in musculoskeletal conditions like back pain, shoulder injuries, knee and elbow problems and headaches.
In addition, acupuncture has gained some recent exposure for pain associated with arthritis. CBS Early Show released the results of a study demonstrating the effectiveness of acupuncture for arthritis relief. The University of Maryland School of Medicine tested the effectiveness of acupuncture on 570 patients with arthritis of the knee and found not only a significant decrease in pain, but also an improvement in function.1 This was ground breaking news as many alternative health studies often fail to receive the funding or exposure to receive the recognition they deserve as viable treatment options. More importantly, arthritis suffers now may find relief with a safe treatment that doesn't possess the associated health risks that have been discovered with the use of medications like Vioxx, Aleve, Celebrex and Bextra.Recent reports have linked these pain medications to increasing the risk of cardiovascular damage.
To the surprise of many, acupuncture is a painless, bloodless procedure. People usually feel more relaxed and calm after the 20-30 minute treatment session. It has been one of the main staples in Eastern medicine for approximately 5000 years. It has been used on nearly every condition known to man and has been very successful treatment option for those who fail to thrive with traditional medicine alone. T o be truly optimistic, one must look outside the box. Perhaps it is time to look through the eye of the needle.
1. Berman BM, Lao L, Langenberg P, Lee WL, Gilpin AMK, Hochberg MC. Effectiveness of Acupuncture as Adjunctive Therapy in Osteoarthritis of the Knee: A Randomized, Controlled Trial. "Annals of Internal Medicine." 2004; 141(12):901- 910.
2. Birch S, Hesselink JK, Jonkman FA, Hekker TA, Bos A. Clinical research on acupuncture. Part 1. What have reviews of the efficacy and safety of acupuncture told us so far?
J Altern Complement Med. 2004 Jun;10(3):468-80
3. Ausfeld-Hafter B, Marti F, Hoffmann S. [Smoking cessation with ear acupuncture. Descriptive study on patients after a smoking cessation treatment with ear acupuncture]
Forsch Komplementarmed Klass Naturheilkd. 2004 Feb;11(1):8-13. German.