Acupuncture is an ancient healing art developed by the Chinese over 5000 years ago. Its philosophy and principles are so solid that they have changed little with time, and have now been validated by modern scientific research.
In order to understand acupuncture it helps to appreciate some aspects of Traditional Chinese Medicine [of which acupuncture forms an integral part]. Acupuncture is often used together with Chinese herbs, massage, and nutritional advice.
For all living systems in the human body to function properly, and to work in harmony, they have to maintain balance. The Chinese have described this balance in terms of yin and yang , which represent opposite pole e.g. up and down, light and dark, cold and hot, male and female etc.
The Life Force, Chi or Qi [pronounced “chee”] is said to circulate throughout the body with a diurnal [daily] rhythm to maintain the balance between yin and yang. This energy moves along pathways or meridians, which the Chinese have charted very precisely over thousands of years. There are 14 meridians, which link all the acupuncture points together. In a state of health, the Qi flows along these meridians without interruption. In disease or injury, this flow is interrupted or blocked, resulting in stagnation of the Qi, which produces the symptoms of pain, stiffness, swelling, etc.
Qi can be accessed and manipulated via acupuncture points, which are small windows into this energy system of the body. The acupuncture points can be activated by means of needles, finger pressure, heat, suction cups, laser beams, or the SCIO. The correct stimulation of the relevant acupuncture points stores the free-flow of Qi, which results in relief of pain, improvement in function, and return of the body to health.
TOOLS OF ACUPUNCTURE
[a] Acupuncture needles are very slender and made of stainless steel, copper, or other metals. The sizes vary from a 3mm stud used on the earlobe, to 15cm long needles used in deep muscles. The insertion of a needle should not be painful, apart from the initial prick; this is followed by a deeper “needling sensation”, which is similar to the sensation experienced when bumping a “funny bone”. This indicates that the Qi has been successfully stimulated.
[b] Electro-acupuncture: In certain circumstances it may be necessary to attach electrical clips to some of the needles so that they can be electrically stimulated with an almost imperceptible current.
[c] Moxibustion: Certain conditions such as osteo-arthritis, may require heat, which can be applied by burning the herb Artemisia vulgaris [Mugwort] on the needles or near the acupuncture points. This painless but very effective treatment is also called “moxa”.
[d] Laser acupuncture: If all this talk about needles is making you squirm, there is an alternative; acupuncture points can also be effectively stimulated with a low energy laser beam, which is harmless and painless. Many clinical acupuncturists use a laser, which is a modern Western modification. Laser has the distinct advantage of being able to treat children, and those with a needle phobia. They have several other advantages:
- Speeding up the healing of injured tissues e.g. ulcers and fever blisters, following injury or surgery.
- Stimulating circulation.
- Reducing inflammation.
- Stimulating new cell growth.
- Reducing fibrous tissue formation e.g. following burns and surgery.
See also Laser Therapy.
WHAT CONDITIONS CAN BE TREATED?
Acupuncture should be the treatment of choice for the following:
- All back problems including sciatica, lumbago, pinched nerves, muscular spasms, stiff neck etc.
- Headaches and migraines.
- Shingles and neuralgia.
Acupuncture is also very useful in the following painful conditions:
- Rheumatic and arthritic conditions e.g. tennis elbow, fibrositis, frozen shoulder, and carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Sports injuries and repetitive strain injuries [RSI].
- Neurological problems such as trigeminal neuralgia and Bell’s palsy.
- Dysmenorrhoea and spastic colon.
Acupuncture is often used in treating a vast range of other acute and chronic conditions such as:
Allergies e.g. hayfever, sinusitis, asthma, and eczema.
General improvement of function, strengthening the immune system, and management of stress.
WHAT DOES TREATMENT INVOLVE?
After a detailed history and clinical examination, the practitioner will discuss treatment options.
While lying down the needles are inserted in selected acupuncture points; then the patient is left to relax for about 30 minutes. Electrical stimulation, moxa or low level laser may also be applied
WHAT CAN ONE EXPECT FROM ACUPUNCTURE TREATMENTS?
In general, most people should see some benefit within one to four treatments. Often there will be an aggravation or worsening of symptoms after the first or second treatment, which should cause alarm. This quickly gives way to improvement as the treatments continue. At first, the benefits may only be short-lived, but quickly become sustained.
As the benefits of acupuncture are not only symptomatic, any perceived improvement is a real improvement, equivalent to the tuning of a car engine. Depending on the cause of the problem, it may take a shorter or a longer time to become “out of tune” again, which may require booster treatments from time-to-time. It is important to understand that acupuncture can only improve function; but it cannot effect structural changes. For example, it can reduce the pain and stiffness associated with a pinched sciatic nerve, but it cannot replace or repair the damaged intervertebral disk.
ARE THERE ANY SIDE EFFECTS?
All modern acupuncture needles are disposable to prevent transmission of HIV. In experienced hands, complications from needling are rare and never serious. If you are pregnant, acupuncture can still be used, although caution will be exercised with the use of certain points. Laser acupuncture has no unwanted side effects.
WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF ACUPUNCTURE?
As acupuncture is so safe, it is always worth trying, before resorting to drugs and surgery, which themselves often have side effects. Anti-inflammatory drugs are the conventional mainstay of treatment for musculo-skeletal conditions, but are notorious for causing unwanted irritation of the stomach and intestines. Excessive painkillers can also damage the kidneys. In many instances, surgery can be avoided with acupuncture, or at least the condition can be improved to the point where fewer drugs are needed to obtain relief.
On the other hand, many conditions that have failed to respond to conventional treatment can be eased [thus enabling a reduction in drug therapy] or cured.
Contrary to popular belief, there has been a lot of scientific research into acupuncture over the last 20 years. The ancient principles, which where hard to understand, have now been largely validated by scientific methods.
[a] Bio-energetic: There is much evidence to show that the nature of Qi is electro-magnetic. Acupuncture points have a lower electro-magnetic potential, which can easily be demonstrated with a sensitive ohmmeter. Disturbances in bio-energy cause biochemical changes, which in turn cause anatomical changes in the body.
[b] Neurological: Although meridians do not correlate with nerve or circulatory pathways, it has been shown that acupuncture has an inhibitory effect on nerve pain transmission. It also has a direct effect on parts of the brain by increasing the blood flow to the medulla, which relays pain message.
[c] Chemical: The body, in response to acupuncture stimulation, releases various chemical substances. These include endorphins, bradykinins and prostaglandins. Endorphins are pain relieving and mood elevating and are probably responsible for the euphoria that is often experienced after a treatment. Bradykinins are also pain relieving, and prostaglandins have anti-inflammatory effects.
[d] Placebo effect: Proponents of acupuncture often argue that the benefits are all in the mind. The scientific term for this concept is the “placebo effect”. It is generally accepted that in any healing, the placebo or psychological effect accounts for about 30% of the benefit, and that one’s state of mind can affect the outcome of any treatment. Despite this benefit, one does not have to believe in acupuncture for it to work; notably, acupuncture works in children and animals, which are not subject to the preconceptions of the placebo effect.
Acupuncture does not work any more effectively in one racial group compared to others, nor does it form part of any religion, Eastern or otherwise.
REGULATION OF ACUPUNCTURE IN SOUTH AFRICA
The Allied Health Professions Council of South Africa (AHPCSA) is the statutory council that regulates Acupuncture in South Africa, in accordance with Act 63 of 1982. AHPCSA controls all matters relating to students and practitioners – disciplinary matters, educational standards and professional fees. www.ahpcsa.co.za