Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine practice that involves inserting thin needles into specific points on the body. It is based on the concept that the body has a network of pathways called meridians, through which the vital energy or “qi” flows. The goal of acupuncture is to restore the balance of qi and promote the body’s natural healing processes. 

From a modern medicine perspective, the mechanisms underlying the effects of acupuncture are still being studied and understood. Several theories have been proposed to explain its potential physiological effects.

Here are some of the commonly discussed explanations:

  1. Neurotransmitter and Hormonal Regulation: Acupuncture may stimulate the release of neurotransmitters, such as endorphins (natural pain-relieving substances) and serotonin, which can help reduce pain and promote a sense of well-being. It may also influence the release of hormones, such as cortisol and oxytocin, which are involved in stress response and relaxation.

  2. Modulation of Neural Pathways: Acupuncture points are believed to be areas with a high concentration of nerve endings, blood vessels, and lymphatic vessels. Stimulating these points may affect the transmission of nerve signals, leading to changes in pain perception and the release of substances that regulate inflammation and immune responses.

  3. Local Microcirculation and Tissue Healing: Acupuncture may improve blood flow and microcirculation in the treated area. This increased circulation can enhance the delivery of oxygen, nutrients, and immune cells to the tissues, promoting healing and reducing inflammation.

  4. Gate Control Theory: According to the gate control theory of pain, acupuncture may stimulate large nerve fibres that inhibit the transmission of pain signals to the brain. This can result in a decreased perception of pain.

  5. Connective Tissue Stimulation: Acupuncture needles may cause microtrauma to the surrounding connective tissue, initiating a healing response. This can lead to the release of growth factors and the remodelling of tissue, contributing to pain relief and improved function.

Here’s how a session with acupuncture generally works:

  1. Assessment: During your first visit, an acupuncturist will conduct a thorough assessment of your overall health, medical history, and specific concerns. They will examine your tongue, check your pulse, and ask questions about your symptoms and lifestyle.

  2. Needle Insertion: Based on the assessment, the acupuncturist will identify specific acupuncture points on your body. These points may or may not be located near the area of your symptoms. Sterile, thin needles are then inserted into these points to various depths, depending on the treatment plan.

  3. Sensations: You may experience different sensations during acupuncture. Some people feel a slight prick or tingling sensation when the needle is inserted, while others may feel a dull ache or a sense of heaviness. These sensations are generally mild and temporary.

  4. Needle Retention: The needles are typically left in place for a designated period, usually ranging from a few minutes to half an hour. During this time, you will be asked to relax and may lie comfortably on a treatment table.

  5. Treatment Completion: After the required duration, the acupuncturist will remove the needles. They may apply additional techniques, such as gentle manipulation, heat, or electrical stimulation, to enhance the treatment’s effects.

As a patient, you can expect the following from acupuncture:

  1. Individualised Treatment: Acupuncture is tailored to each individual’s specific needs. Your acupuncturist will create a treatment plan based on your unique condition and symptoms.

  2. Relaxing Environment: Acupuncture sessions are usually conducted in a calm and soothing environment to promote relaxation and well-being.

  3. Multiple Sessions: Acupuncture is often not a one-time treatment. Depending on your condition, a series of sessions may be recommended to achieve the desired results. The frequency and number of sessions will be determined by your acupuncturist.

  4. Potential Benefits: Acupuncture is commonly used to help manage pain, reduce stress, improve sleep, promote relaxation, and support overall well-being. However, it’s important to discuss your specific goals and expectations with your acupuncturist.

  5. Minimal Side Effects: Acupuncture is generally considered safe when performed by a qualified practitioner. Side effects are rare but may include mild bruising, soreness, or slight bleeding at the needle insertion sites.

Dylan is a licensed acupuncturist having studied its application with the AACP in 2019.