Acupuncture is just one branch of the Oriental Medicine tree. It involves the use of fine needles inserted into the skin at specific “points” throughout the body in order to treat and prevent disease. The acupuncture points are doorways into the stream of “qi,” or “energy,” that circulates continuously throughout the body, uniting every organ and tissue into an intricate web of wholeness receiving nourishment and releasing waste products. Over thousands of years, Oriental Medicine doctors have recorded what effect placing a needle into the different points on the qi pathways (meridians) has on the health of the patient. For example, one point might boost the patient’s energy; another might calm the spirit; another can help stop diarrhea, while another might help the bowels to move. For any kind of imbalance or dysfunction you can think of that negatively affects the health, one or more acupuncture points exist to help put it right.
Problems that affect our health are treated in acupuncture in one of two ways, by inserting acupuncture needles local to the problem, or treating the problem from a distance. Some of the most effective and strongest points for treatment are found on the arms and legs, below the knees and elbows. These points are often a long way away from the actual site of disease. For example, a sore throat can be treated by needling a point on the hand or fingers, and a headache by needling the feet. Other times, points will be chosen close to the site of injury or disease or to the source of the disease. Some acupuncturists specialize in ear acupuncture, using ear points in addition to points on the rest of the body. Auricular acupuncture, as this is called, treats all ailments by placing needles on points in the ears that correspond with affected body parts and systems.
What will actually happen when you go for your treatment can vary slightly from acupuncturist to acupuncturist. Some will ask you to wear loose clothing and simply move aside whatever clothes are in the way of the needles. Others will ask you to remove your outer clothes and either lie under a sheet or put on a loose gown. You might be treated sitting up, or lying on your back or side or tummy. What will be the same, no matter what method your acupuncturist uses, is that he or she will work with you to make sure you’re comfortable and warm, and feel safe and secure as the treatment takes place.
The actual needling process surprises most first-time patients. After sterilizing your skin with alcohol or iodine, the acupuncturist will insert a needle. Most patients are surprised to discover that they usually can’t feel the actual insertion! What you will feel, and be asked to report to your practitioner, is the sensation of qi arriving at the point of insertion. The sensation of qi generally lasts only for a moment and then subsides, and it’s a curious sensation that people describe in many ways, and that may well feel quite different in different parts of the body. It’s often described as a sensation of distention or heaviness; of tightness or pressure; of a very small cramp or ache that arrives and then leaves; of movement up or down the body from the place the needle is inserted. Sometimes the sensation is felt at a distance from the actual insertion point. On rare occasions it can be a slightly uncomfortable sensation, but even then it comes and goes quickly. In some treatments or acupuncture styles, qi sensation isn’t always required. In a typical treatment, 4 to 20 needles will be inserted, depending on what’s being treated and which points your acupuncturist feels are important to stimulate to obtain a good result.
Once the needles are in place, you will rest quietly and comfortably for a period of time that could range from 10 minutes to an hour while the needles do their job. Many patients snooze happily during their treatments. Your practitioner may or may not remain in the room with you during this time, but either way, you’ll be checked on regularly to make sure you are comfortable and secure.
During this time, the practitioner may warm your needles with moxa, an herb with healing properties that is used in many forms. Your practitioner may attach wires to your needles and run a gentle, battery-originated electrical pulse that feels much like the tapping of raindrops. Or perhaps your treatment will be combined with the adjunctive therapies
of cupping or gua sha, which are two other ways to release congestion and move the blood. Cupping involves using glass or plastic jars to create suction on the surface of the skin. Gua sha uses a smooth-edged spoon or stone to gently scrape the surface of the skin, causing redness and thereby increasing circulation. Some practitioners also perform tui na or an mo (two types of Oriental bodywork) as part of the treatment, or they might do some qi gong work or give you some qi gong exercises to perform at home.
How many treatments you’ll require and how long it will be before you see a change in your condition varies a lot depending on what’s wrong, how long you’ve had the problem, and what sort of external factors are involved (work, rest, diet, toxins, etc.). Once a differential diagnosis is made, your acupuncturist will be able to give you some idea of what to expect and what length an expected course of treatment would be.