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  • Dr. Mark Freund

All about Acupuncture Treatment: Uses, Benefits, and Risks

Updated: Dec 8, 2022

acupuncture benefits and risks

If you're new to the world of holistic healing as a form of treatment, acupuncture can seem a bit daunting. How could piercing needles into your skin possibly make you feel better? Won't it hurt?

Actually, acupuncture is a painless process that has been practiced for 3,000 years. In the past, it was primarily thought of as a voodoo medicine used in the eastern world. However, today, it's been a go-to treatment option for many patients in pain.

Acupuncture is the process of relieving discomfort by inserting very thin needles into your skin at strategic points of the body. It's used to treat all sorts of pain like low back pain, dental pain, neck pain, osteoarthritis, and even headaches. Although quite rare, acupuncture treatment does have some minor risks to be aware of.

In combination with acupuncture, cupping therapy is another alternative medicine option that provides pain relief and promotes good health. We'll cover everything you know, such as the acupuncture benefits and risks and what to expect. Let's begin!

How Does Acupuncture Work?

The acupuncturist starts by pinpointing where the issues reside. They may use an acupuncture point map to mark the insertion sites. These sites are critical since they ensure that the patients won't feel the needles inserted into them while still providing their maximum effect.

When the small, thin needles are carefully pierced through the insertion points, the brain assumes that it has been injured and reacts accordingly. The body begins producing helping chemicals to relax and heal the affected areas.

When talking about how acupuncture works, it's important to distinguish the differences between traditional Chinese medicine and western scientific explanation.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) believes that the body has a delicate balance of two opposing forces: yin and yang. The primary assumption in TCM is that optimal body health is achieved by maintaining a balanced state, and disease and pain are due to internal imbalances of yin and yang. This imbalance causes blockage in the flow of qi (vital energy) along the body's pathways. TCM theorizes that blood and energy must circulate continuously without obstruction for the body to maintain good health. The pathways called meridians are channels where the energy flows through the body. Acupuncture points lie along the meridian, and the insertion of needles can increase, decrease or redirect the body's blood and qi, thus correcting the imbalances.

how acupuncture work to relieve pain

Conversely, the western world has its own scientific theory about how acupuncture works and its mechanisms. The primary belief is that acupuncture produces positive effects through the regulation of the nervous system. By regulating the nervous system, it aids the activity of pain-killing biochemicals like immune system cells and endorphins at precise locations in the body.

Furthermore, studies have found that acupuncture can alter brain chemistry by changing the release of neurohormones and neurotransmitters. This can affect many parts of the central nervous system like the immune reactions or regulate a person's blood flow, blood pressure, and body temperature. In short, western medical practitioners view acupuncture points as places to stimulate muscles, nerves, and connective tissues. The biochemicals released from the various acupuncture points trigger a response to the body's pain receptors to promote natural healing.

Long-Term Benefits of Acupuncture

Acupuncture can't guarantee a cure for your condition. However, it can manage and relieve the symptoms from a wide range of issues and even prevent them from reoccurring.

Some of the long term benefits of acupuncture treatment include:

Lower back pain: One study on non-drug treatments for low back pain proved that acupuncture led to improved back functioning and less intense pain right after the acupuncture treatment.

Migraines: A lot of research has been performed on acupuncture's effects on treating migraines. It demonstrated that acupuncture reduced the frequency of migraine symptoms by half in 41% of the patients compared to those that didn't receive acupuncture. It also proved that it could be used as a preventative measure for migraines.

Tension headaches: Research has demonstrated that having a minimum of six acupuncture sessions can be helpful in reducing the symptoms of people with frequent head pain or pressure. The study suggested that acupuncture along with pain medication led to less frequent headaches when compared to individuals who were only given medication.

Knee pain: Some research suggests that acupuncture can improve the physical function of the knee in the short and long term, especially for individuals with knee osteoarthritis. This study found that acupuncture helped decrease knee pain for individuals with knee osteoarthritis.

acupuncture health benefits

Facial elasticity: Besides reducing pain, there are also use cases for cosmetic reasons. Facial acupuncture is utilized to improve the appearance of the skin on the face, head, and neck. One study suggested that over half of the participants had shown improvement in their skin elasticity, causing their skin to look plump and more rejuvenated. The individuals received five acupuncture sessions in three weeks.

Mood enhancement: The application of needles stimulates your central nervous system, causing the release of endorphins and other chemicals. Consequently, it can lift your mood and put your mind in a state of relaxation. This process allows you to think more positively as your body fights off the damaging effects of pain or other discomforting symptoms.

Sleep quality improvement: Acupuncture boosts your body's natural ability to produce melatonin. This hormone helps to regulate your sleep and wake cycles. Many people today struggle with insomnia due to poor lifestyles and sleep habits. Acupuncture aims to restore your body's natural ability to fall asleep and remain asleep easier.

Immune system support: Your body's immune system acts as the first line of defense against infections and disease. Acupuncture can strengthen the immune system to fight back against infections and other harmful threats. In addition, it'll help speed up the healing time.

Digestive support: Whether it's Crohn's disease, gallstones, inflammatory bowel disease, or acute gastrointestinal problems, acupuncture offers digestive support. It helps to rebalance the gut-brain axis and stimulates the nervous system to reduce stress. As a result, it improves digestive function. Furthermore, this treatment reduces inflammation and pain, which regulates the stomach acid and promotes peristalsis.

Cupping Therapy Benefits

Cupping therapy can be utilized as a standalone massage treatment or in conjunction with acupuncture. It's an ancient form of alternative medicine where the therapist puts special cups onto your skin for a few minutes to generate suction. This therapy can be used for many reasons, such as relieving pain, reducing inflammation, increasing blood flow, and promoting relaxation and overall well-being. Additionally, cupping therapy is a great form of deep-tissue massage.

The negative pressure and suction provided by the cupping helps to encourage blood flow, loosen muscle and sedate the nervous system. The cupping therapy pulls tension up, which is then released by acupuncture.

Many medical practitioners believe in a wide scope of cupping therapy benefits:

Reduces physical and mental stress: Cupping therapy activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This switches your body from fight or flight mode to a state of relaxation, rest, and recovery. Once your body's parasympathetic nervous system is activated, the body will reduce its blood pressure, and the resting heart rate will slow down. Furthermore, cupping helps increase the ease at which blood flows throughout the body, meaning it helps deliver more oxygen and nutrients in the body. Having more nutrients and oxygen helps aid the body in healing. Also, oxygen-rich blood is vital for cellular health. Most benefits that cupping therapy provides come from activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which initiates the relaxation of the body.

Releases toxins: The suction and negative pressure from cupping help your cells release toxins that your body may be holding onto, such as:

  • Bacteria

  • Boldly fluids

  • Metabolic waste

  • Inorganic substances

Once the suction is released, the toxins will travel out of your body through the circulatory and lymphatic systems.

Eases muscle tension and related pain: Tension in the low back and back of the thighs can cause ongoing discomfort in your lower back. Using a combination of cupping and acupuncture can relieve this tension. Cupping therapy can alter the muscle structure to alleviate tension areas, while acupuncture can reduce pain by improving the nerves' response.

cupping therapy

May clear congestion: Congestion occurs from a build-up of mucous, fluid, and phlegm in the lungs, sinuses, and other airways. This can lead to inflammation and blockages that cause airway constriction, making breathing difficult.

The suction created by cupping can aid the body naturally by breaking up the phlegm to release it more easily through drainage and coughing. The boost in oxygen-rich blood also supports the airway muscles as they restore and heal normal function.

Acupuncture Side Effects and Risks

Since acupuncture isn't an invasive treatment option, the chances of side effects and risks are quite low, especially if you receive the treatment from a certified acupuncture practitioner who uses sterile needles.

It's standard practice to perform the treatment with single-use disposable needles to minimize the risk of infection. Common side effects for acupuncture include:

  • Pain can occur when the needle is inserted into the skin. An experienced practitioner will pass the needle through the skin quickly to ensure the process is pain-free.

  • Bleeding should be minimal h; however, sometimes bleeding or bruising can occur once the needle is administered.

  • Drowsiness may occur in rare cases.

  • Infection may occur anytime a foreign object pierces the skin and enters the tissue. The practitioner must ensure that the needles are properly sterilized to prevent potential infection.

It's important to note that not everybody is a great candidate for acupuncture. You may be at high risk of experiencing complications if you:

  • Are pregnant: some forms of acupuncture can stimulate labor resulting in premature delivery.

  • Have a bleeding disorder: If you're on blood thinners or have a bleed disorder, acupuncture may increase the chances of bleeding or bruising.

  • Have a pacemaker: It's a device that controls your heartbeat. The practice of acupuncture can disrupt the pacemaker's operation.

In addition, you may want to consider the following pretreatment safety protocols to minimize the odds of side effects and maximize the results of your acupuncture treatment.

  1. Get lots of rest. Although acupuncture is a minimally invasive treatment, it can still be hard on your body. Giving your body ample rest will allow your body to produce biochemicals and evoke a healing response to acupuncture.

  2. Avoid caffeine and alcohol. That's because they will dehydrate your body, which isn't conducive to removing toxins. Instead, drink plenty of water before the acupuncture session.

  3. Use a warm compress on sore spots. Placing heat on sore spots can improve the speed of healing and release blocked energy. It'll help with the blood flow in the affected area, which can improve the results of acupuncture.

Acupuncture Treatment

Since acupuncture needles are so small and thin, most patients feel little to no pain when inserted. However, patients may experience a "chi sensation," which is a typical response to the acupuncture stimulation. These sensations may include slight pressure, tingling, or dull aching. However, these feelings will decrease over time, and patients will leave sessions feeling relaxed or energized depending on the reason for their treatment.

Generally, each acupuncture session lasts between 20 minutes to an hour. Just like other chiropractic treatments, you'll find immediate pain relief that lasts up to a few hours after each session.

However, the symptoms will begin to decrease over time as you continue your acupuncture treatment in the weeks and months ahead. Most patients typically notice some improvement relatively quickly after just one treatment. However, every person responds differently to acupuncture. Positive changes can be expected shortly after an acupuncture session, like reduced pain, less stress and anxiety, improved digestion, and better sleep quality. Once you're sleeping better, experience less pain and stress, your body can devote more resources to resolving the main concern.

long term benefits of acupuncture

Acupuncture is a natural medicine that works with your body's internal healing system. The process can take time. It isn't like ibuprofen which only covers up your systems. Acupuncture digs deep down to the core of the problem to treat the pain and other symptoms. Experts recommend at least five acupuncture sessions before the patient can see its true long-term benefits.

At Natural Care Chiropractic, we take a holistic approach to your health and wellbeing. Dr. Gopaul has a postdoctoral study in acupuncture along with a certification in dry needling. If traditional medicine hasn't worked for you or you seek a natural remedy for your pain, we recommend considering acupuncture. Book an appointment with our specialists to learn more about acupuncture and see if it's the right treatment option for you.


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